I had the pleasure of meeting two out of the three founders of the unique pill organizer, EllieGrid, Regina Vatterott, and Abe Matamoros. Their third co-founder, Hieu Nguyen, they tell me, is camera shy. They also say he is super-bright, having a master for the University of Southern California in Electrical Engineering, and one in Computer Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Regina and Abe met at school in Houston, Texas. While they went to an all-girls and an all-boys school, respectively, but they often met across the parking lot. They were both especially interested in entrepreneurship, so they had a great deal in common and became good friends. While they went to different universities, they stayed in touch.
The idea for EllieGrid came from two separate problems, both needing the same solution. Abe’s grandfather was spending so much of his time sorting and taking pills that he gave up doing so and because seriously ill. Meanwhile, when Abe and Regina were walking to lunch one day when she collapsed. As Regina came around, she admitted to Abe that she, too, had been failing to take vitamin pills that she needed.
Regina and Abe discussed the clear need for a pill dispenser, which would also remind people to take their pills. There were some on the market, but when they carried out some research on why people didn’t use them, the descriptions came back that they were “like having a robot sitting on the kitchen table.” There were objections even from people in their ‘70s, that “we aren’t that old or that sick yet.” The dispensers had a bad association for people.
Regina and Abe decided that what was needed was a health accessory. They thought of how only a few years previously, a heart rate monitor was just a medical device, and now everyone wanted a Fitbit. They thought the same approach could be taken with a pill dispenser.
They wanted it to appeal to all ages and built the first rough concept for EllieGrid with supplies from Hobby Lobby and Radio Shack. They had no idea how to manufacture it properly or take it to market. The name Ellie is short for Elephant because they have good memories. The team also wanted a name that made people feel like they were with their friend, not their doctor.”
Still only 21, Regina pitched to the Business Plan competition at her university, St Edward’s. She won first place with a $2,500 prize. She was majoring in Entrepreneurship, and St Edward’s course was focussed on ideas that solved social problems.
Abe majored in finance and economics at university. From there, he worked as a consultant for angel investors, helping analyze companies looking for investment, and developing those companies’ business strategies. Abe had given a pitch at the Austin Hardware StartUp Meetup, and it was there that Hieu Nguyen approached them. Hieu Nguyen had just arrived in Austin, and he became the engineer that they were looking for to be the perfect co-founder with his knowledge of both electronic components and circuit boards.
A few months later, Abe and Regina pitched at a StartUp event at Austin’s Tech Ranch, the accelerator founded by Kevin Koym. They were the two youngest pitching. By this time, they had a patent pending for the name and a functioning prototype.
By the time, their idea for EllieGrid and its concept was absolutely clear: a pill storage device that could also be linked to a mobile app. It lights up when a patient should take pills, tell them how many, and, perhaps most importantly, alert family members and other caretakers if they fail to take their medication.
Funding was a constant issue. No one wanted to give much investment to a company run by some students with no product or validation, so they survived on small wins and prizes from pitching the pillbox. Abe says that while it was tough when he looks back, he can see that it was good to go through bootstrapped development stages. For one thing, they all still own most of the company now.
He says that they have also been able to make their own mistakes in their own time too. Even with the pitching, initially, they felt that talking of his grandfather made the best story. Still, with experience, they realized that much of their potential, broad-aged market would relate to Regina’s personal experience and involvement with the company even better.
The Big Turning Point:
The big turning point for Ellie Grid, the smart pillbox, was crowdfunding with IndieGoGo in 2017. With this method, they were selling the product in advance of development to create funds, and the result was phenomenal. They had people buying into their pillbox idea from all over the world, and those prospective users helped not just with money but with ideas and feedback and, most importantly, provided the much-needed market validation. They raised over £175,000 in only two months, which paid for them to go through the testing phase pre-scale.
Following this, they were able to go through other crowdfunding campaigns, and gain some Angel investment. In 2018, Regina took part in the Inaugural Accelerator Cohort in Austin and spent four months with Quake Capital’s accelerator, which specializes in seed investment.
They had planned to split their growth into two phases. The first of which was selling the hardware to develop some of the cash flow. With that achieved, they have been able to progress to phase two, monetizing the data by sales to Healthcare organizations.
This year they are predicting $2m in sales. While the crowdfunding came from an astounding 27 countries, they are currently concentrating on the US and Canada. They discovered that different countries supply pills in different ways, some in blister packs, for example, and some not. They are, however, getting a lot of interest from Europe for the pillbox and how they are making medication management easier.
They are now partnering with the CRO’s (contract research organizations) that allow patients to be tracked within clinical trials. Many of these trials are currently being carried out in people’s homes because of COVID, so this makes their pillbox especially relevant.
But the effects of EllieGrid’s smart pillbox will be a lot more far-reaching than a convenient, even fashionable gadget. An incredible 125,000 people in the US alone die because they are not taking their medications correctly or at all every year. Someone failing to take medication might only be picked up when they fail to pick up a new prescription 60 days later under the current system. Abe and Regina aim to make it possible to sound an alert within hours.
Next year, they hope to develop their AI to collect typical patterns of non-compliance and further develop the elliegrid.app. For example, if someone uses typically uses their telephone in the morning and misses that, they may not be feeling well, which in turn makes it more likely that they would miss their evening pills. It will take time to collect and then test the data on this, but vast numbers of lives could be saved in the long term.
Everything had looked rosy for Abe and Regina and the EllieGrid smart pill box. But life took an unexpected and terrifying turn.
At the start of 2019, they were conquering the world. Regina was in Israel with other women from the Forbes 30 Under 30 Lists. The plan was to spend some time with the Schusterman Foundation before attending the Forbes Global Women’s Summit. She had been having a wonderful holiday, vesting London and then onto Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv.
With no warning, at breakfast one day, Regina, still only 25, had a stroke. A paramedic there correctly identified what was happening and took her to Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva. Doctors found that she had suffered a major brain hemorrhage, and after six hours of emergency surgery, she was still critical. Two weeks later, Regina was brought home to Texas for extensive rehabilitation. She had lost movement on the right-hand side of her body and her ability to speak.
She spent three weeks at TIRR, a rehabilitation hospital and research center in Houston, having intensive physical and occupational and speech therapy. She has continued since as an outpatient. The progress is impressive, but it has been a long haul.
Abe has been picking up her work as she is still in rehab three days a week, though she can now visit the office twice a week. Her work has helped her.
Abe is quick to credit Regina’s knowledge of pharma and her pitching for much of their early success.
I was immensely honored that this was Regina’s first interview after everything that happened. Her courage is immense.
What is also completely clear is the incredible bond of friendship between Regina and Abe, without which they could never have gotten through such a difficult time. It was truly moving to see the rapport between them both.
Advice from the Pill box founders, Abe and Regina
Abe’s first piece of advice stems from their own experiences with the Ellie Grid pillbox. He believes it is vital to talk to as many people as possible about your idea and see if they would want to use it instead of what some entrepreneurs do, which is to go out and convince people to use it. Equally, Regina adds, the fact your grandma loves it is not enough.
People are embarrassed to share something that is not ready or finished, so they spend years on development to find that people don’t want it in the end. Abe has seen many people fall into this trap and says it is heart-breaking.
Regina agrees and says this is where Kickstarters are so incredibly useful. Advice is great, and you need it, but the real tell on your chance of success is if people will part with their money for the product.
Abe warns that you will fail and fail often, but fail early. Again, this is part of why people are afraid to reveal much at an early stage. They are scared of that failure. But in fact, they are only avoiding it, avoiding learning and making things worse.
Abe says there is a famous quote from Elon Musk, “If you need inspiring words, don’t do it.” He thinks inspirational words may help to get you started, but in the end (reflecting the Musk quote), it is hard work and the belief in what you do and the passion to solve that problem that sees you through.
Regina adds at this point that it is essential to surround yourself with people smarter than you. Abe then explains that what changed his perspective in just thinking he could solve the problem was along the lines another quote.
It was the day “I found out that everything around me was made by people who weren’t much smarter than me. That was the day everything changed because then I had the confidence to question everything around me. If people assume that everything around them is built by people way smarter, they won’t have the courage or confidence to question all those things around them. If we don’t question things, we can never make them better”.
You may also enjoy the story of another young US entrepreneur using tech in the world of health, Alyson Friedensohn.