In one of the darkest periods in her life, Jessica Bussert, the founder of WAVE Therapeutics, turned to helping others as a way to deal with her own hardships. From technologist to registered nurse to founder, Jessica's North Star has always been helping others. She's doing that now with her mission to build affordable solutions for the healthcare needs of everyone in this country.
Q: Tell us about your professional journey – from technologist to registered nurse – and how that inspired you to found WAVE Therapeutics.
I was a precocious, geeky kid. I taught myself electronics when I was about 10 years old and computer programming when I was 12, learning COBOL on punch cards. I started my first business when I was 15, at the beginning of the personal computer revolution. I went door to door offering my services to small businesses that had no idea how to use personal computers. By the time I got to college, I formalized the business and incorporated Bussert Consulting, Inc., which I ran for a dozen years. We expanded to a team of about 15 and earned a reputation as a highly respected consulting firm in the Midwest. We eventually caught the attention of a Fortune 100 company, which made me an attractive offer that I accepted. I ended up leading the company's EMEA business consulting and professional services.
I thought that was going to be my life. I was living in London. I was traveling all over the continent. It was my best life, or so I thought. At that time there were no protections for transgender people in the United States, but the UK had just passed protections that led me to believe it would be a safe, welcoming place to come out. I was mistaken. Those promised protections did not materialize, and ultimately, I lost my job and was blackballed in the industry. Nobody would hire me. I lost my work permit and had 28 days to leave the UK. I had to come back to the States but had no idea what I was going to do. It was a very difficult time and, frankly, one of the darkest periods in my life.
I've always been a believer that if you're fighting depression, one of the best things you can do is help someone else. The small county in the U.S. to which I moved only had a volunteer fire service and they needed people. I joined the fire department and, as part of my responsibilities, I went on emergency medical runs. That was a profound experience. I felt like I was doing something that really mattered. After a couple of years of struggling to get back into tech, I discovered that helping others made my heart happy. I made the decision to go back to school and become an ER nurse.
Q: How did your experience as a nurse lead to the development of your first product?
I went back to school in my early 40s, got my license, and worked bedside as a nurse for almost 10 years, mostly as a travel nurse, going to different facilities around the county. At one of those facilities, I encountered a disabled vet who arrived at the ER by ambulance and was very, very sick. He was a bilateral amputee, having lost his legs in Afghanistan. He was poor and used a very inexpensive wheelchair with nothing more than a piece of memory foam for his cushion. This man had the worst bed sores I'd ever seen — the tissue was infected, and he was septic and almost dead. As I was working to stabilize him, he shared that his doctor had prescribed a $4,000 automated wheelchair cushion to help treat his wounds. The $4,000 was just for the cushion and didn't include the wheelchair itself. Of course, the man couldn't afford it. His story broke my heart, and it disappointed me that our country does such a lousy job taking care of our poor, let alone those who have served our nation. It also made me angry that a company was selling a product for $4,000 when the parts probably cost around $100. It felt like profiteering off of human suffering. I knew that, with my engineering experience and my healthcare knowledge, I was in a perfect position to come up with a better solution.
Q: Tell us about the development of your first product.
I started prototyping in my garage. I made my first eight prototypes out of things like bicycle inner tubes and cushions that I sewed together myself. I etched the first circuit boards, soldered the components, and even programmed the microprocessor that controlled the whole thing. Early on I started talking to some researchers in this space and got very encouraging feedback on the direction we were taking. And then in 2019, I approached a local vascular surgeon and asked if I could do some testing of our latest prototype in his clinic. The surgeon was so taken by the technology that he became my first investor. He wrote a check for half a million dollars. We used that money to do our design for manufacturing and eventually cut our tooling.
Right now, the best product on the market that treats bedsores operates like a teeter-totter — that's that $4,000 wheelchair cushion I mentioned previously. All it does is rock the user from side to side. While that works to change up pressure points, it does nothing to support circulation. Our cushion combines two clinically proven therapies — alternating pressure and sequential compression. Our product provides a one-way pumping action that moves from a patient's knees, past their thighs, and across their buttocks, to change up pressure points and help deliver fresh, oxygenated blood to at-risk tissues. In addition, embedded sensors and our real time communications deliver rich data, remote patient monitoring, and the compliance-with-care data needed for insurance and liability avoidance. I'm very excited that we are just a couple of months away from the soft launch of the Surf Wheelchair Cushion based on our patented technology. We plan to launch at a retail price of only $600.00 or via an affordable monthly subscription.
Q: Developing a hardware product is significantly different than developing software. What advice do you have for founders about prototyping their products and the types of resources they should be looking for?
When you think about hardware design, it seems like a really daunting prospect. But we live in an age of makers and maker spaces. There are all kinds of tools that are accessible to even non-technical people if you're willing to spend the time to learn how to use them. And so many of these tools are free to hobbyists and startups: online tutorials and videos and CAD, the computer-aided design program that I used to design all the parts in my product. In addition, even if your project is too daunting for you to address by yourself, there are engineering schools all over the country that have undergrads and graduate students who are looking for intern opportunities. You can partner with these students to provide the technical resources you need to build cool products.
Q: What is your long-term vision for WAVE Therapeutics?
Our short-term mission is ending bed sores. 60,000 Americans die every year from bed sores. That's 50% more deaths than from car accidents. Initially we're producing wheelchair cushions and then we will adapt our technology for hospital beds, the surgical suite, and neonatal care. The next iteration will be consumer versions of the product — for Uber drivers, long haul truckers, and frequent flyers. That's just the starting point. Ultimately, my dream is to generally provide the most effective and affordable healthcare solutions needed by our populace. Without universal healthcare, it's up to us founders to fill in the gap and to provide an ethical solution to the healthcare needs of everyone in this country. There is no reason why companies can't be profitable and still sell products at reasonable prices. We would like to be the provider that offers effective, affordable solutions, at scale.
Q: We're all familiar with the disheartening statistic that less than 2% of venture capital is invested in companies founded by women. Having faced numerous challenges as a transgender woman, what advice do you have for women who are struggling to break through this funding barrier and build their companies?
My hypothesis is that if you're going to have me swim laps in a pool and you're going to tie cinder blocks around my ankles, I'm either going to become a damn good swimmer or I'm going to drown. At this point in time, I like to think that I'm a damn good swimmer. So, my advice is to persevere. You're never going to succeed if you quit. Surround yourself with champions who will encourage your journey, guide you, and offer a shoulder to cry on. And be scrappy. As women founders, we can't afford to have the crazy burn rates that you see in Silicon Valley. We have to make do with a lot less. At the end of the day, that makes us better by being more efficient and optimizing processes. So, by persevering, you can do it. And if I can do it, so can you.