Two Yale School of Public Health students have developed a solution to inconsistent prescription adherence — a medical issue that kills 125,000 people a year — as part of a growing focus on entrepreneurialism in Yale’s health care programs.
The project, known as pillTracker, is a seven-day pill dispenser wired to flash and alert the user when the pills are not taken by a certain time. If pill disuse continues, the dispenser alerts health care providers or family members via cellular networks so that they can follow up with the user. Howard Forman, director of the health policy and management program at the School of Public Health, said this project demonstrates increased interest among public health students for social entrepreneurship — business creation that seeks “greater impact than just profit maximization.”
“For my grandfather, the beginning of the downhill slope of his health was not being able to take his medication on time,” pillTracker co-founder Alex Rich SPH ’17 said. “As his cognitive capabilities deteriorated, he had to take five or six different kinds of pills that don’t come pre-sorted and don’t have any intelligent way to remind you what to take and when.”
Poor self-regulation of pill intake can lead to serious health concerns by reducing the drugs’ helpful effects or worsening harmful side-effects, Forman said.
Keeping up with student demand for social entrepreneurship programming, Forman pointed to a new required health care management class, “Creating Healthcare and Life Science Ventures,” that aims to provide instruction for starting businesses in medicine and care.
“This is all about demand and pull, not push — this is all driven by student demand,” Forman said. “We independently chose to meet the demands of the students by offering a required course on ventures in health care technology.”
However, the class is not required until students’ final year in the program. PillTracker co-founder Rob Martin SPH ’17 said that since students will graduate soon after taking the course, it would be difficult for the class to have a substantial impact for entrepreneurship on campus, even if it is highly informative.
While organizations like the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute offer funding and mentorship, these options are not necessarily what a social entrepreneurship product like pillTracker needs, Martin added.
“There are different monetary resources that are through YEI, but we’re weighing that option versus finishing the product ourselves, doing the user testing, and then finding mentorship just through our professors and fundraising ourselves,” he said. “I think the latter is the option we’re going to go with. Philosophically, we’re scared to get anyone involved that doesn’t share our direction.”
Martin added that if building the company without the YEI framework is slower and another product “eats” pillTracker, their objective has not been missed, because the service goal will be fulfilled by the new company.
The primary entrepreneurial strength of the School of Public Health is Forman’s ability to recruit the top students to the management program, Rich said. His recruitment talents allow for the student interactions that result in innovation, he added.
Rich noted that organizations like the Center for Biomedical and Interventional Technology allow for people throughout the Yale community to meet and share ideas for problems that need to be solved. The CBIT offers a program bringing physicians, professors and other health care professionals to present on problems within their discipline. Students in the audience then seek to find solutions to these problems, and, Rich said, sometimes go into business with the presenters.
According to Rich, programs like these are important for cultivating the right sort of collaborative environment for entrepreneurship to flourish. However, there is a long way to go in this capacity, and these resources are somewhat uneven, he said.
“I think Yale as a whole has a challenge in the entrepreneurial space in terms of getting people to work across silos — what we have going for us in the School of Public Health is that we work closely with the School of Management, so being able to get into courses there is tremendously valuable,” Rich said. “But of all the places I’ve been, we have more brilliant people per square foot here than anywhere I’ve been, but we still find challenges for people to come together across disciplines.”
Rich said one of the biggest problems for the school is the lack of visibility for entrepreneurship opportunities available on campus. He said that, too many times, he found out about exciting workshops, lectures or meetings a few days after they happened — he only came upon CBIT by chance, which he said was ultimately a huge advantage for his product.
Martin said the best way to stimulate entrepreneurship in the School of Public Health and elsewhere at Yale is to push for more interaction across disciplines.
“The bottom line is that the number one resource at Yale is the people at Yale,” Martin said. “Programs like YEI are definitely useful to undergrads, but there are limitations to these resources, which is why we are looking for other resources for mentorship, guidance and funding.”
Martin added that pillTracker is currently in the design and development phase, but will likely move toward a Kickstarter campaign and apply for awards in the coming months. After the product is fully developed, they hope for a rollout to health care providers as a form of preventative care to avoid prescription misadherence.
Today, the Center for Biomedical and Interventional Technology is running a hackathon on medical technology.