BATAVIA — When RN Georgann Carrubba walked into her former nursing professor’s office with a prototype for The Choice Cap System — a prosthetic appliance for colostomy and ileostomy patients — Genesee Community College Director of Nursing Kathleen Palumbo was awed.
Not because Carrubba hadn’t exhibited dedication as a student; she was always very energetic and an advocate for patients.
It was because Carrubba was sharing a product that could improve the quality of life for the more than 800,000 Americans who use ostomy pouches after live-saving surgeries.
“I couldn’t believe it, this is amazing,” Palumbo said of her reaction, “and why didn’t anyone in 60 years think of this, why didn’t I think of this? This is amazing.”
Less than two years, a patent and several design improvements later, Carrubba found herself before a panel of judges at the Rochester Venture Challenge Wednesday.
She explained how Tencar, her start-up business, could market a double-flanged wafer that a patient could then connect to either a traditional pouch, a light-weight, air-tight and waterproof cap; or a smaller pouch stored in the cap.
A patient with a post-surgery stoma, who had tested the device last week, stood behind her. So too did the team of consultants and advisors assembled at the Genesee County Economic Development Center’s Innovation Zone.
It was Carrubba, wearing her scrubs as she stood next to the High Tech Rochester-created competition’s other finalists, swung the hammer.
She took the $25,000 grand prize back to Genesee County.
Carrubba has worked as a nurse at the Veterans Home at the Batavia VA, Wende Correctional Facility, and as a community health and private nurse.
Her work connected her to the discomfort and depression that come with Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, diverticulitis, cancer or trauma injuries.
“When we can improve the quality of someone’s life we need to do that,” Carrubba said. “It’s our job to come up with those ideas.”
Patients were using a treatment option that hasn’t seen much innovation since another nurse patented an adhesive wafer 60 years earlier.
“Put yourself in the place of these patients — having a bag on your abdomen that fills with stool, that sometimes smells,” Palumbo said. “Even going to the grocery store, a restaurant, never mind swimming, playing golf, tennis or anything like that. Some of these people become virtual shut-ins, they become afraid, embarrassed.”
The spark for her creation came in 2011, from a bowl in her sister’s kitchen.
“I was having coffee with her ... and it caught my eye,” Carrubba said. “I said my prayers that night and the next morning I was working on it in my garage.”
The Choice Cap is meant to add a more secure and less obtrusive option that will work and cost the same as the traditional systems. Carrubba said users can be more comfortable in public, in activities and in intimate situations.
“One of the biggest struggles that patient had was changing their lifestyle to accommodate a pouch,” Carrubba said. “This is going to bring them back to doing the activities they’ve avoided or feared.”
Part of her plan is to make the devices fashionable with fabric covers.
This was the moment.
As each stage of the Rochester Venture Challenge came, Carrubba said she felt momentum.
“This was it,” Carrubba said. “We’ve got it very close ... but this was truly a complete shock.”
A day later, she assumes the judges saw the necessity and the potential market for her idea.”
“I quit trying to be this businessperson, and I went to the guts of it all — what it’s about,” Carrubba said. “They saw the passion.”
Carrubba credited Rami Katz and Theresa Mazzullo, executives of Excell Partners, a Rochester-based venture capital firm, for shaping her presentation skills during the challenge’s earlier rounds.
But Carrubba also thinks ignoring a bit of advice on organizing presentations might have helped.
She led the judges through the benefits to insurers, who can be sold on expected reductions in medical office visits, medication and depression treatment; and providers. It was only at the end that she focused what it means for patients.
“How do you place value on returning a patient to their previous active lifestyle, on deceasing their anxiety, their depression? How do you do that? I believe it should be patients measuring that,” Carrubba said.
“I knew how I wanted to end it, because that’s the truth.”
a matter of innovation
The prize money will be funneled toward a $100,000 medical study to gain patient feedback that will determine final product design. Carrubba said venture capital and a crowd-funding campaign are also planned.
Carubba has a partner in attorney Eugene Tenney and advisors such as GCEDC Vice President Chris Suozzi, Palumbo, marketing executive Ed Bizari and creative developer Sabina Ramsey.
“This is the goal of the Innovation Zone,” Suozzi said. “(Georgann) had an idea, she came here and we figured it out ... we bring in the pieces to get her to the next level.
GCEDC will apply for Start-Up NY incentives when Tencar is ready to build what Carrubba envisions as a 150-employee production facility next to the MedTech Center. An application for certification as a woman-owned business for state contracts is on the way.
Initially, production, packaging and shipping will be done at EmpireEMCO in Getzville.
“Nothing is standing in my way,” Carrubba said. “We’ve come too far and they’ve waited too long. The patients need this, it has to happen.”