Abe Matamoros came up with the idea for EllieGrid in 2015 after a family trip to Mexico to visit his grandfather.
When they arrived at his grandfather’s home, the elderly man was unresponsive, shivering and ill. The family eventually realized he hadn’t taken his medications in three days. Part of the reason was that he grew frustrated that it took him between 30 minutes and one hour to organize his pills in weekly organizers printed with the days on the top and times on the side.
The experience frightened 22-year-old Matamoros so much he decided something needed to be done to address the problem. He reached out to his friend Regina Vatterott, who was a student at St. Edward’s University in Austin at the time and working for an advertising company serving independent pharmacies.
The pair did some research and realized there were smart pill dispensers on the market – but they cost around $800 on top of a monthly fee.
“That’s just not realistic for most people,” COO Vatterott said. “Especially considering people spend so much money on medicines and healthcare already.”
The budding entrepreneurs found that pillboxes are not just for the elderly. Adults of all ages who take supplements or vitamins as well medicines could use a more efficient way to organize their pills and remember when to take them.
Both college students at the time, Vatterott and Matamoros – who are now both 23 – went to Radio Shack and Hobby Lobby and put together what Vatterott describes as “an ugly prototype” that was enough to show their teachers. There were a few factors behind the naming of the product. They chose Ellie (short for elephant), according to Vatterott, because elephants "have notoriously good memories." Ellie also means light and the company uses LEDs. Since Ellie is also a name, the team hopes that one day people will be able to speak to it by making requests such as "Ellie, order me a refill." Grid is for the grid-like design
The duo teamed up with friends with engineering backgrounds and started doing business plan competitions. So far, EllieGrid has raised a total of $43,000 in cash from awards and competitions and more than $100,000 in resources such as materials and access to rapid prototyping. Awards include first place at the IBM Health Hackathon and at a Health 2.0 competition.
Now their smart pill product, EllieGrid, is pre-selling on Indiegogo for $99 for a limited time. It will ultimately retail for $119. Pre-sales began Nov. 10 and by Nov. 23, the company had exceeded its funding goal of $40,000. The four-person team is all either still in school or recently graduated. The company has dual headquarters in Austin and Houston.
Most of the team members live at home with their parents to save money to build the company. Although EllieGrid has had offers for funding in the $1 million range, the founders have chosen to wait before accepting large investments.
“We knew if we could wait until we had our product polished and built out, we could get better terms,” said Vatterott. “We didn’t want to have to give up equity in our company.”
Recently the company did take some "a small amount" of outside money from Houston investor Robert Bobo, which they plan to put toward manufacturing the first batch of the product in the U.S.
“We know it’s more expensive than doing it in Asia but we want to be able to keep a closer eye on how it goes so if something’s wrong, we will find out right away, rather than months later,” said Vatterott, who majored in entrepreneurship.
“I can’t picture myself doing anything but pillboxes now,” she said. “We see this not as a medical device, but as a health accessory.”
How it works
EllieGrid works by allowing a user to store pills by type, rather than by time and day, so it takes seconds to refill the box. All a user has to do is dump a pill bottle into the section designated for that pill type – rather than divide a pill bottle up between multiple boxes based on time and day.
The pillbox is paired with a mobile app, into which users – or their loved ones or caregivers – enter prescription information, specifically times and days of the week when pills must be taken.
When it’s time to take a certain type of medication, an alarm rings and lights on the lid illuminate, indicating which pills to take and how many. A grid design on the lid lines up with the seven boxes below, so that the lights go on directly above the pills to be taken at that particular moment.
Users get reminders every day via the mobile app. Loved ones or caregivers can also sign up for a text message whenever a user has not opened the pillbox as scheduled.
Carolyn Rodz, founder and CEO of Circular Board, a Houston-based accelerator for women entrepreneurs, heard about Vatterott and EllieGrid through a mutual contact. She encouraged her to apply for one of Circular Board’s accelerator classes.
“One of the things that stood out to me is they have a really unique take on a simple product,” she said. “They’re keeping it simple, which is particularly important when dealing with senior care, which can be complex.”
Rodz also sees broad applications beyond senior care.
“There’s a younger generation that takes supplements for various reasons and this product helps users keep their checks and balances with their pills,” she said. “This is a very intuitive product. And this is very fresh take on a very old space.”
The team’s youth gives them an edge, she believes.
“This is going to appeal to far beyond the 60-plus market,” Rodz said. “What you’re seeing is the innovation of pillboxes from a young team with a fresh take on design and technology.”
Indeed, the internet of things – the connection of devices to the internet – is increasingly taking over a wide range of industries. Cisco Systems predicts there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020.
Investor Bobo has known Matamoros since he was young and is impressed with his commitment to the company ability “to keep expenses to a bare minimum.”
“It’s hard to find people that committed,” he said. Overall, Bobo agrees that EllieGrid has broad applications.
“I see a big fit with those in the sports industry taking supplements,” he said. “Both baby boomers and the younger generations will appreciate the simplicity in its technology.”