To Benjamin Nadeau, BELM ’13, and Greg Affsa, BIND ’15, coming up with the next big thing isn’t that big of a deal if it doesn’t help someone.
Affsa and Nadeau met as resident assistants in the Wentworth dorms. Nadeau had participated in Wentworth’s Accelerate Startup Challenge the previous semester, and Affsa wanted in on the action.
But neither was interested in creating something flashy that otherwise served little purpose.
“The last thing we wanted to do was come up with another social media app that the world doesn’t need,” explains Affsa. “Innovation has the biggest impact when it’s making a radical positive change. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s innovative.”
As it turned out, both men had friends or family who had undergone major pain-management treatment. Knowing that something like chemotherapy is bad enough without having to lug a bulky pump around all day, the
pair wondered if they could develop a more patient-friendly alternative.
At first, they looked at the hardware: making the pump smaller, or changing the method of treatment altogether.
“If you do that, there’s an FDA process that could take 10-plus years,” says Nadeau. “We wanted to make a big impact quickly—six months to two years—so we went back to the drawing board.”
Or, more accurately, the sewing machine.
Affsa had been taught how to sew as a boy, helping his mother make his Halloween costumes. So he and Nadeau started tinkering with how the pump was carried. A backpack was suggested, then a holster-type sling, similar to what undercover police officers use to conceal their guns. Eventually, they landed on a vest: light and tight, able to be worn under clothing. It offered convenience and privacy, something the chronic pain sufferers they knew craved. Affsa
sewed up a rough prototype, an Accelerate pitch was made, and Gentoo was born.
The team was awarded $10,000 in funding from Accelerate. More important, however, was the connections they made.
“The biggest things are the people you meet,” says Nadeau. “The mentors, the 30-plus years of experience on the phone when you need it.”
They eventually became finalists in MassChallenge, an annual $1 million global startup competition. They met contacts at Beth Israel Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Yawkey Center, and handed out vests wherever they could, taking feedback and suggestions along the way. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and word spread to the point that patient help groups started seeking them out as a viable alternative. Gentoo had graduated. “In the real world, there are no grades,” says Affsa. “It’s real people who are affected by the quality of your work.” Now, the young company is chasing its biggest prize yet. They were named to the Top 20 of the Livestrong Foundation’s Big C competition,
giving them access to cancer patients and caretakers, and a whole new perspective on treatment. Five finalists will travel to Livestrong headquarters in Austin, Texas, for the chance to win $25,000.
“Livestrong’s whole thing is keeping patients active and improving the quality of life,” says Affsa. “It’s so perfectly aligned with our own vision of Gentoo.”
Affsa and Nadeau are expecting to hit the market this fall. Meanwhile, they’re sharing their experiences, good and bad, with the next class of Wentworth innovators.
“We’ve been so fortunate to have complete strangers come up to us and offer services or favors, and to help us along the way,” says Affsa. “Now we have the opportunity to go back and point out the mistakes we made, and maybe
help someone else. That’s the best part of this new innovation culture: creating a bigger community of people that want to change the world.”
To learn more about Gentoo, visit gentooinc. com.
–Sean J. Kerrigan