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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

 
 

Catch up on space news — from new partnerships at Rice University and the latest snub for the Space City. Photo via NASA.gov

It's been a busy few days for space news, and in Houston — the Space City — it's all relevant to the continued conversation of technology and innovation.

With so much going on — from Houston being passed over for the Space Command's headquarters and Rice receiving $1.4 million in federal funds for a new hub — here's what you may have missed in space news.

The Ion awarded $1.4M to launch Aerospace Innovation Hub

The Ion will be home to the Aerospace Innovation Hub, thanks to a federal grant. Courtesy of Rice University

Through a partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center and DivInc, The Ion has been awarded $1.4 million in federal funding to create its Aerospace Innovation Hub. The ASCI-Hub will support and develop regional minority business enterprises addressing aerospace-related challenges.

"Landing this award is another win for the region that leverages the unique strengths of the crewed space program at NASA JSC," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director of the Ion, says in a news release. "As Houston was critical to landing men on the moon in the late-'60s, the Ion's Aerospace Innovation Hub will be key not only to advancing the future of spaceflight, including the mission to Mars in the future, but also to tackling challenges facing our everyday lives here on Earth."

The hub will provide NASA's expertise and resources across robotics, medicine, health support systems, additive manufacturing, and more — as well as community events, education and training, and an accelerator program.

"We're eager to partner with the MDBA, Rice University and the Ion to help develop and grow minority entrepreneurs and accelerate innovative and tech-forward solutions in Houston," says Vanessa Wyche, deputy director of the JSC, in the release. "This partnership builds toward NASA's goals to enhance scientific and technological knowledge to benefit all of humankind and catalyze economic growth, as we propel commercialization of space and extend our presence in the solar system."

Opening in 2021, the Ion announced $1.5 million in grant funds in September. Those funds are going toward accelerators, which will collaborate with the Aerospace Innovation Hub.

"While we have taken many small — and valuable — steps over the past few years, this is one giant leap forward for our efforts to promote sustainable inclusion in Houston's entrepreneurial and technological ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at the Ion, in the release.

The Air Force announces 6 potential sites for Space Force base — and Houston misses the mark

Houston will not be considered for the Space Command HQ — but Texas isn't completely out of the running. U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez

The United States Department of the Air Force announced the six candidate locations for the U.S. Space Command Headquarters — and Houston didn't make the cut.

The six locations include:

  • Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico
  • Offutt AFB in Nebraska
  • Patrick AFB in Florida
  • Peterson AFB in Colorado (where temporary operations are located)
  • Port San Antonio in Texas
  • Redstone Army Airfield in Alabama

The Air Force evaluated self-nominated cities from across 24 states based on factors related to mission, infrastructure capacity, community support, and costs to the Department of Defense, according to a press release. U.S. Space Command Headquarters location announcement is expected in early 2021.

"We are disappointed that Houston is not among the finalist locations for the U.S. Space Command," Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer for the Greater Houston Partnership, says in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. "We believe we put together a strong case for why Houston should be chosen. We will continue to work with the U.S. Air Force and other branches of the military on future opportunities and we will remain vigilant in our pursuit of aerospace industry opportunities for this region."

Rice Space Institute to collaborate with Canada

The Rice Space Institute has a new partner is Canada. Photo courtesy of NASA

Rice University's Rice Space Institute has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Consulate General of Canada in Dallas to collaborate on space science and technology.

The parties made the collaboration official at a virtual event on November 20. RSI Director David Alexander OBE, a Rice professor of physics and astronomy, says the partnership is key to the continued commercialization of space exploration.

"What's different about this agreement is that with the rapid growth of commercial space worldwide and the strength of the aerospace industry in Houston, it presents a new pathway for potential interactions between Canadian science and industry and commercial entities not just in the Houston region but around the world," he says in a news release. "It's a nice, complementary aspect to our connection with NASA."

The United States has collaborated with Canada on space exploration for decades, and Canada's government is committed to advancing space technology.

"This MOU with the Rice Space Institute comes at an exciting time in human space exploration," says Rachel McCormick, the Consul General of Canada in Dallas and Canada's official representative in the U.S. South Central region, in the release. "In 2019, the Government of Canada announced an investment of $1.9 billion over 24 years for the next generation of smart, AI-powered space robotics for the U.S.-led Lunar Gateway program.

"We are also providing $150 million over five years for the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program," she continues. "LEAP will fund the development and demonstration of lunar science and technologies in fields that include AI, robotics and health."

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