Jessica Garcia is the founder of Tozuda, a company that’s revolutionizing sports medicine and diagnostics with impact sensors for helmets used in high impact sports, such as hockey or football. Tozuda sensors can detect forces in any direction within milliseconds of impact and alert a player or coach when one has been hit too hard during game play. Concussions occur when an impact to the head or body causes the brain to move inside of the skull; most concussions and traumatic brain injuries are caused by rotational and linear forces. Their sensors withstand regular helmet use and minor impacts, but can detect when a hit is potentially concussive, such as a direct, linear blow to the helmet, or a rotational hit which causes the head or neck to twist.
The implications for this technology are extraordinary and impactful. Highlighted in an article last year in the New York Times, a neuropathologist examined the brains of 111 N.F.L. players — and 110 were found to have C.T.E., the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head. The ability developed by Tozuda to anticipate, assess, and mitigate potential concussions, has the potential to raise the bar of safety standards in sports. Garcia took a moment to update the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center on her journey as a founder so far.
What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
JG: To me, entrepreneurship is creating opportunities where none existed, and fighting against the obstacles that have kept innovation from improving any industry or field. I believe that if you have the ability to empathize with people and their problems, you can create valuable solutions through entrepreneurship. To be a successful entrepreneur is to create value-added solutions to help your community or consumer base solve their problems, not the problems that you perceive. In entrepreneurship, you create your own ceiling for achievement, and you set your own standard for success. If you have the drive and the dream, then the only limit is yourself.
How did your company come to be?
JG: The idea for Tozuda originated from my own experience and need for a solution for concussion awareness. In my senior year playing rugby at Lehigh University, I was left in a game after taking a severe blow to the head. While evaluating game footage three days after the game, my coach reached out to me to apologize once she saw I sustained a concussion and should not have kept playing. As a result, I faced post-concussive symptoms for months–what could have been a short recovery period turned into six months of irritability, depression, inability to read, sensitivity to light and noise, and more–all because the time between my injury and its detection was three days. At the time, the only “affordable” impact-detection device that could have helped me was a $200 smart-mouthguard. While this technology would have undoubtedly been valuable to me and my teammates, I knew it was something I simply couldn’t afford. More importantly, I knew it was an expense that many others wouldn’t consider “worth it” until it was too late. It was then that I realized there was a need to make head impact safety affordable, accessible, and simple for everyone.
What’s the biggest experience or lesson gained on your journey so far?
JG: Something that I used to overlook but have come to prioritize is my own well-being. I would say not being afraid to concentrate on myself was one of the largest lessons I learned. It took me a while to realize how important it is to prioritize yourself and your own needs. Building Tozuda has been an endurance game. I’m notorious for wanting to work constantly, but it was important for me to learn when to stop, and that putting myself and my business in overdrive really meant putting both in danger. When it comes down to it, if you’re not healthy, you can’t run your business and you can’t run your team. For all the entrepreneurs who think they’ll never burn out, know that it is bound to happen. Don’t overwork yourself and don’t overlook your physical and mental health.
How is your company changing the landscape?
JG: Taking on the issue of head injuries, Tozuda is penetrating industries that neglect the problem’s severity and the need for a solution. We’re not only bringing awareness to the issue, but also providing a solution that is affordable, accessible, and straightforward. By creating a non-electronic sensor, we can offer our technology to all, helping users see in any setting when there is a need to worry about a concussion or traumatic brain injury. Moreover, we’re applying what we’ve learned in sports to other industries and markets where workers are susceptible to head injuries, including construction and the military. Tozuda is changing the landscape by offering an answer to those who have settled on doing nothing as an acceptable alternative.
What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
JG: Startups are a marathon not a sprint, you need endurance. Motivation comes in winds, but discipline is what will carry you through. More than anything you need discipline to stay focused, to work through issues, and to keep moving forward when it feels like you have no motivation left. Now I’m much more disciplined with Tozuda and myself but I used question myself a lot when I was all out of motivation. One major turning point in this journey was shifting my mindset from “who am I to be doing this?” to “who better than me to do this?” For so long, Tozuda was just my personal mission, and even though I was capable of doing every facet, I wasn’t efficiently using my time and skills. I have faith in Tozuda and the fact that our sensors keep users from neglecting their brains. My confidence in my company is where I find my motivation to keep going and to stay disciplined. If I could do anything differently, I would tell myself not to be afraid to ask for help sooner.
What credo do you live by as you grow the business? What is your professional and personal mission statement?
JG: There are a number of quotes that I try to live by and exemplify through Tozuda. One piece of advice that has always resonated with me is from Maggie Kuhn – “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.” No one knows for sure if Tozuda will be successful but I can’t let fear stop me before I even try. It’s hard to put so much behind a project and then offer it up to the whole world for criticism and judgement. But I think that’s the point of what Kuhn is saying, that you can’t let fear dictate what you say or do; what matters more than how you might feel is what you actually do. If you never try, you never know.
What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs about building and leading teams?
JG: I think one of the most important things about leading a team is knowing yourself and what you’re good at. It may seem obvious, but determining your strengths allows you to comfortably admit your weaknesses, or areas where you lack experience or expertise. From there, it’s easy to ascertain who and what skill sets will be beneficial to your team and your progress. When you have team members who have the same strengths as you, your skills become redundant. But when you can be honest about what you know and what you don’t know, you can bring in team members who are able to add value and help you better understand the areas in which you don’t yet have experience. It has been amazing to see Tozuda grow from a personal project to a team effort. Our team is made up of 7 people who can bring different skills and perspectives to Tozuda. I feel lucky to get to work with a team that can pick me up when I’m down, and bring innovative ideas to the table that push our company to the next level.
Where do you find inspiration when faced with challenges?
JG: My parents and my family have always been a huge source of inspiration and support for me. Seeing their hard work pay off over the last 20 years has been both rewarding and motivating. My parents started as a supermarket demo company running their business themselves, and today their marketing and advertising services are utilized nationally by a number of major CPG companies. I’m constantly inspired by my family and my parents for starting their own business, and building an amazing agency which has prospered thanks to their perseverance. My dad always says believe and succeed; if you believe you will succeed. It’s impossible to give up with parents like mine. I’ve also learned from my dad that it’s important to take care of the people who take care of you. Stay thankful for those who open doors for you, and never forget where you came from.
What does “success” look like for you? What do you think will help you achieve it?
JG: Simply put, success for Tozuda means having sensors on users! Tozuda was created so that we could help people play the sports that they love safely. I hate to see anyone afraid to participate in sports due to fear of injury. I have sports to thank for some of my best memories, closest friends, and most valuable life lessons. Concussion concerns shouldn’t sideline you from your daily activities, whether that’s playing your favorite sport, enjoying your morning bike ride, or going to work. Ultimately, it would be amazing to see this type of technology become mandatory in sport, construction, military, and other helmeted activities and industries. Every person we can encourage to use a sensor, and prioritize their own brain’s safety, is a success. When we can see the stigma of concussions change so that athletes and individuals don’t see admitting injury is admitting weakness or defeat, then we will know we were successful.
What are your proudest and darkest moments so far?
JG: Share a key high and a key low from your journey if you can. Our lowest moment was probably redesigning one of our first iterations that we thought was ready to go to market. This early version of our sensor performed perfectly in our testing but didn’t respond the same way in the field, and could only capture linear impacts reliably. But this roadblock pushed us to come up with a better design: our current sensor version which can successfully detect linear and rotational impacts in testing, and in the field. One of Tozuda’s proudest moments since our redesign was getting our first utility patent issued. This was even more motivating for us as it verified that we were capable of inventing something that was novel, worthwhile, and valuable.
What lesson did 2018 have for you? What do you look forward to in 2019?
JG: In 2018, we learned that perseverance is key in research and development; if we gave up on our first version, we would have never invented our new design which can indicate potential injury much more reliably. Looking ahead into 2019, we’re most excited to work out the kinks in our supply chain and begin scaling our business to raise concussion awareness from a larger platform. We can’t wait to be able to provide our technology to more people who want it, and show how simple head impact safety can be to those who need it most.
Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day?
JG: In the uncertain and fast-paced world of startups, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and lost. For me, it’s important to take time for myself and reflect. One way I’ve been able to incorporate this into my busy routine is with 5 minute journals. In the mornings I ask: how can today go well, what three accomplishments would make the day successful? At the end of the day, I check in with myself again to determine the three most important achievements of the day and which things could have gone better. Naturally, there are many other aspects of my daily routine that help with my work and sanity. I listen to a lot of rap and music that hypes me up. I love the confidence rappers like Cardi B exude in their music, and I find it inspires me to stay resilient and strong when things get tough. In the mornings I can, I like to go to the gym to get my workout out of the way. Whether it’s the gym or something else, it’s helpful for me to accomplish one task before I begin checking my email for the day. I’ve found that going through emails first thing creates a list of new tasks for the day, and makes it too easy to overlook the tasks I had prioritized the night before.
Has being a female entrepreneur helped or discouraged you in your context? What do you think would help women entrepreneurs and leaders the most?
JG: While it might not come as much of a shock, the sporting, construction, and military industries are all very male dominated. People tend to shake my coworker John’s hand before mine because they assume that he’s the one in charge. Although it can be discouraging and frustrating to have to work against people’s baseless assumptions, it’s definitely helped me grow a thicker skin and become more direct. However I do also think that being a minority in so many respects has opened doors for Tozuda. As a certified minority-owned, woman-owned business, we’re able to take advantage of opportunities and programs which exist to help companies like ours grow. My parting advice for other rising entrepreneurs would be to try to see beyond your gendered perspective—own your business, and own who you are.