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Houston startup founder is reinventing medical devices by thinking outside the pillbox

Regina Vatterott is thinking outside the traditional pillbox. Courtesy of Regina Vatterott

One day in college on her way to lunch with some friends, Regina Vatterott fainted on the sidewalk. It wasn't anything serious, but she had a few vitamin deficiencies and hadn't eaten in a while. After that, she started taking her daily supplements more seriously.

She tried using the traditional pillbox, but it would take her forever to organize. And she hated how her friends would call it, in a loving, playful way, her "old people pillbox."

She joined forces with a few like-minded individuals at her school to create a health and wellness accessory, rather than a medical device. They bought craft supplies and hand-glued LED lights to the first prototype of what would become EllieGrid, a smart pillbox that syncs with an app on your phone so that you can easily program your medicinal schedule and receive alerts of when to take what.


EllieGrid is a smart pillbox that syncs with your phone.Courtesy of Regina Vatterott

Vatterott, who was interning at a company that did social media marketing for independent pharmacies nationwide, saw an underserved market of adults who have a need for a product like this. EllieGrid targets the Baby Boomer age and younger, usually between ages 35 and 55.

Now, EllieGrid is growing from its initial presale phase to setting a system in place where Houstonians can find EllieGrid in stores or online.

InnovationMap: You and your team were only college students when you started. How did you get funding?

Regina Vatterott: We started pitching business plan competitions all over the country — even as far as Barcelona. We raised money — and some of it wasn't even money, but resources, like access to 3D printers or free office space. It was an amazing tool for us, and it helped validate us and helped us perfect our business plan. We ended up raising like $200,000 just in business plan competitions.

After that, we knew we had to prove it in market. Last year, we ran a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo. Our goal was to raise $40,000, and we raised around $167,000. In January of this year, we shipped all the products that were preordered on IndieGoGo to 37 different countries.

IM: What's been the biggest challenge?

RV: The very beginning, the challenge was affording our legal fees — it's not something you want to skimp on, but was incredibly expensive. After that, it was simply manufacturing. It's never easy. It's always going to cost three times as much and take three times as long as you expect. With our plastics, we use a process called injection molding, and if the temperature is off, the plastics will dry in a different way and the pieces won't fit together. It's an obnoxious challenge that we're still facing today.

IM: What's next for you or your company?

RV: Right now, we are making that transition from pre-selling products to just regular sales. It's easier said than done because we are making sure that supply chain is efficient and on time. We are finishing up a batch of 1,000 units to work with that we'll just sell on our website. Once we have information on how we can sell these units, we want to work with distributors, so we are working on creating those relationships now.

IM: How has being headquartered in Houston been?

RV: This is a very affordable place and has a lot of resources for startups. I will say our one struggle is there's not a lot of funding for hardware startups — especially for consumers — like ours. That's more in California or New York.

IM: Thinking more long term, what do you have in mind for EllieGrid and your team?

RV: For EllieGrid, we want to implement artificial intelligence. We want to be able to take the data of how the user is interacting with the device and be able to predict when people will forget to take their meds to prevent any issues with medication.

For us, Ellie is just the start. We want to develop more health and wellness accessories that are traditionally known to be medical devices. One example we give is how eyeglasses used to be medical devices, and now glasses are a fashion accessory. We want to do more and more with medical devices because we think that people are always people before they are patients.

IM: What's the worst piece of advice you've received?

RV: In the beginning when we'd pitch this idea to doctors, they would tell us we were wasting our time because patients don't care what a product looks like as long as it works. I don't really get that anymore, because we're proving that wrong now.

The product is available online on the EllieGrid website, and the app is available for download. Courtesy of Regina Vatterott

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, the CRE community needs to prioritize marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Photography by Peter Molick

Houston is no stranger to hurricanes, and in recent years winter storms have become an increasing concern. Following the winter freeze in 2021, more than 4 million Texans were left without power, water, or heat. The state’s infrastructure system was adversely impacted concurrently — including workplaces, hospitals, transportation, homes, drinking water distribution, electric power generation, agriculture, and grocery stores. Now, a new potential disaster is on the horizon. Recent research shows Houston is most likely to be affected by wildfires, a climate-related challenge that our city has not previously faced.

According to the Gensler Research Institute’s 2022 U.S. Climate Action Survey, since 2019, only 18 percent of Americans believe their communities are built to withstand climate change. The good news is Americans overwhelmingly agree that addressing climate change is urgent. The question many are asking is — “How can we take action to better prepare buildings and cities to weather the climate challenge?” The solution is simple. In order to understand where we need to go, we must understand how we got here.

With a population that has more than doubled in the past 50 years, it is challenging for most Houstonians to imagine a time when The Bayou City was nothing more than agricultural lands and oil fields. Today, Houston is known for being the fourth-most populous city in the United States. It is a sprawling concrete jungle home to the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and research institutions. When reflecting on the past 50 years, one can’t help but evaluate the city’s successes and shortcomings. While Houston has succeeded in becoming a diverse, international city, we have sacrificed the very ecology that once made up one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas. By 1980, Houston possessed the least amount of green space per person in the country.

As new developments popped up across the city, it became difficult to convince developers to pursue third-party certifications such as LEED, a globally recognized symbol of sustainability that provides the framework for designing healthy, efficient, carbon saving buildings. We can credit Hines with being one of the few developers in Houston to prioritize green design during the early-2000s. City leaders also began advocating for resilient strategies and more green space to attract and retain international talent and businesses. In recent years, we have seen an increase in buildings that are achieving LEED certification, and soon it will become the baseline.

The Houston Advanced Research Center, Photography by Shau Lin Hon, Slyworks Photography

An example of a project leading the way for resilient design is The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC). In 2017 the organization completed work on its LEED Platinum Certified headquarters which was designed to meet the ENERGY STAR certification rate of 99 (out of 100). This means that the building is more efficient than 99 percent of all office buildings in the United States. Skanska is another construction and development company bringing a sustainable mindset to downtown Houston with its work on Bank of America Tower. In 2019, the 775,000 square foot building became the largest LEED v4 Platinum Core and Shell certified project in the world to date and was developed with harvesting technology that will significantly reduce energy usage.

It’s also important to understand the impact that the climate crisis is having on people. 91 percent of U.S. Gen Z/Millennials have been affected by extreme weather events since 2019, the most of any generation. These experiences have resulted in two generations preparing to react and combat climate change and has encouraged a spirit of transparency among companies who choose to share their environmental goals and strategies.

For architects and designers, addressing building and energy codes is proving to be the next big design consideration. As codes progress in the coming years, the result will be more unique and unexpected building designs.

When reimagining the use of buildings, Architects Paulina Abella and Tayler Trojcak propose an experimental process for repurposing vacant buildings called High Hackers. The concept provides an opportunity for developers to offer prime downtown real estate to people with diverse skill sets, whom they call “hackers,” to pursue projects shaped by their individual ideas. These hackers—makers, artists, and academics—will work alongside one another in spaces that encourage them to coexist with creatives from other fields and disciplines. More importantly, it fosters a collaborative, organic, and innovative workflow.

When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, we encourage prioritizing marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Promoting awareness and optimism in our communities is another simple yet effective way to make a difference. For businesses, creating a sense of continuity in the face of climate events, investing in energy and resource efficiency and adaptation, and addressing insurability and the long-term value of real estate will ultimately help lead Houston and its community members toward a place of preparedness and resiliency.

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Rives Taylor directs Gensler’s Global Design Resilience teams and initiatives and has been a faculty member of both Rice University and the University of Houston for 30 years. Maria Perez is a design resilience leader for Gensler’s South Central region and director of sustainable design based in Gensler’s Houston office.

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