Conducting clinical drug trials data can be challenging and gets expensive when it comes to collecting enough verified data on patients taking medicine correctly. Two Trinity University students are launching a smart pill bottle that could revolutionize clinical trials and possibly help prevent drug abuse of potentially addicting pain medication.
PATCH, or Pill Administering Technology for Compliant Healthcare, is an internet-connected pill bottle that gives clinical trial researchers the ability to track a patient remotely. Two student co-founders submitted the PATCH concept to Trinity University’s annual Louis H. Stumberg Venture Competition, a two-part pitch competition hosted each spring and the fall. PATCH’s Andrew Aertker ’19 is majoring in computer science while Gavin Buchanan, ’21 is studying mathematical finance.
The pill bottle cap releases pills one at a time according to the prescribed dosing schedule for the patient. The bottle records when the medication is dispensed and sends that information directly via Bluetooth low-energy technology to the cloud-based PATCH application. The software platform collects patient data and notifies the patient when it is time for the next dose. The bottle’s automated data collection gives researchers the ability to identify which patients are compliant and provides access to the aggregated data needed for FDA approval of a new drug.
Aertker and Buchanan discovered a market for improving the accuracy of clinical research with better tracking of patient compliance in clinical trials. The co-founders first thought of the smart pill bottle as a solution to substance abuse after reading a 2009 Oxford University study which found making pill bottles harder to open decreased suicide rates by 43 percent.
PATCH won $5,000 as a finalist in the university’s spring pitch competition and used the seed money to develop their bottle prototype. As one of five finalists in the spring pitch competition, PATCH secured a spot in Trinity’s Summer Accelerator program, which provides $4,000 for each member of the startup and free housing. Trinity’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship also provides student entrepreneurs like the PATCH team mentoring, funding, and connections to experienced business leaders in San Antonio.
By the end of summer, the startup had a patent pending for their universal pill bottle cap design, which can fit on different bottles.
“We also raised $100,000 in private funding over the summer,” Buchanan said.
The students went on to win a $10,000 second-place award in the fall Stumberg pitch competition. Student founders retain full ownership as there is no equity share required in exchange for funding.
“Our student founders often go on to compete in national and international pitch competitions and do well after their experience in the Stumberg competition,” Trinity’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship director Luis Martinez said.
Martinez connected Buchanan and Aertker to Dr. Joseph Schmelz, director of clinical trials at UT Health San Antonio. Schmelz and other experts helped the startup focus on clinical trial researchers as their target market for the internet-connected bottle.
Many smart bottle companies are competing to gain market share, but PATCH’s prototype allows for remote data collection when the bottle is used to dispense a dose, a useful feature for clinical trial researchers. The co-founders plan to manufacture the Bluetooth-capable pill bottles on a larger scale at a lower price point and are already working with the San Antonio-based BJN engineering firm to make more bottles. PATCH released its first iteration of the pill bottle in late September, and after testing, it will be ready by mid-January.
“The evolution of their device from initial concept to clinical trial in 16 months has been remarkable,” said David Girault, who mentored PATCH as the entrepreneur in residence for the Trinity program.
PATCH is also working with Real Time CTMS, a San Antonio-based company that specializes in clinical research trial software systems. They are developing the dual portal researcher-patient software that will be integrated with the PATCH bottles and expect completion sometime in March. The bottle’s mobile app is complete; PATCH will be used in its first clinical trial starting in February. The co-founders plan to launch PATCH by April.
Martinez emphasizes the value of teaching entrepreneurship while students are still in school. Programs like those in Trinity’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship give students opportunities for creativity, innovation, and collaboration, Martinez agrees, but he also stresses college is a good time for students to gain entrepreneurial skills. Not only will these experiences help graduates navigate the post-graduation workplace, “college is a good time to take calculated risks before one typically takes on multiple financial responsibilities later that could hamper their ability to launch a new business,” Martinez said.
For the PATCH co-founders, Trinity’s mentoring and support helped them refine a concept that started with their abiding passion coupled with skills in computer science, engineering, and technology to solve a pressing problem.
“We started by focusing on helping people with this internet-connected bottle,” Aertker said. “We’re focused on continuing with PATCH no matter what.”
Featured image: PATCH won $10,000 in Trinity University’s Stumberg Competition September 2018. From left: Trinity’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship director Luis Martinez gives the check to PATCH co-founders Gavin Buchanan and Andrew Aertker. Photo credit: Startups San Antonio.