Student-​led Start-​up gets Smart about Taking the Pill

September 29/2015

The pill has given women a huge level of control over their lives. But it also requires daily diligence, as it’s yet another task to fit into already packed schedules. A new device, created by a team of U of T students is designed to help women put “control” back into their birth Pillsy (3)control. Pillsy is a smart pill pouch that syncs to your smartphone. It knows if and when you take a pill, and so it can give you timely reminders and advice.

One of the students, Courtney R. Smith is an MPH candidate at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. She spoke with Faculty of Medicine writer Carolyn Morris about the product.

Why do we need a smart pill pouch for birth-control pills?

Fifteen million women in Canada and the US use oral contraceptives for birth control, but up to one in 10 of these women will become pregnant during their first year on the pill. Most often, this is because they forget to take it, or take it irregularly. So there’s a big need for Pillsy – a smart pill pouch that automatically tracks when pills are taken, and syncs up your smartphone via Bluetooth to give reminders or tips on what to do if you forget. Unlike existing apps that make you do the work of tracking when you take the pill, Pillsy is an intuitive device that makes the whole process simple and user-friendly.

How did your group come up with the idea for Pillsy?

After doing a first-year Master’s project on a related topic in his program at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME), MASc candidate Eric Ma learned how big of a problem it was that many people don’t remember to take their pills regularly. He also started noticing this around him, by talking with friends and family. He wanted to develop a tech solution, and was looking for a specific market to focus on. He and the original co-founders Valentin Peretroukhin, a PhD candidate and Tony Zhang, an MASc candidate, both at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), decided on the birth-control pill market. It’s a good place to start as it’s a young, tech-savvy group, with a lot at stake.

How will this improve health, over other options out there?

While there are over 30 apps currently available to track pill usage, they all rely on manual input, making them harder to use. As a result, women continue to experience difficulties adhering to their birth control. Pillsy will give women the confidence that they have things under control when it comes to taking their pill regularly, thereby reducing anxiety and also preventing unplanned pregnancies.

How did U of T help you develop your concept?

First of all, we’re all U of T students and have had exposure to so many new ideas and technical skills at the university. After the three original founders, MHSc graduate in IBBME Simon Bromberg, and MHSc candidate in the same program, Sandra Fiset, and myself joined the team. We got support for Pillsy through two University of Toronto incubators: The Entrepreneurship Hatchery, and UTIAS Start Entrepreneurship Program. Both of these have been instrumental in developing our idea into a company, and have provided invaluable resources for us to grow. Through them, we’ve been able to interact with like-minded startups and potential investors, giving us a jump-start in a competitive market. In addition, one-on-one mentorship from an entrepreneurship expert has helped us refine our product, develop our business plan, and plan our next steps. We’ve also just joined the Faculty of Medicine’s Health Innovation HUB (H2i), which offers mentorship and advice for health-oriented ventures, so we’re excited about that support as well.

What are the next steps for Pillsy?

We have two patents pending, and this October we plan to start our beta trial, where early adopters will be the first customers to test out the Pillsy pouch and app. After rolling out the beta Trial, we plan to finalize the product and launch a Kickstarter campaign in 2016.

Pillsy is a smart pill pouch and app to help women take birth control pills consistently. (Check out the video.) Pillsy knows if and when you take a pill, so it can give you timely reminders and helpful advice to improve your habits. Take control of your birth control: Get Pillsy!

Top photo: The Pillsy team received the Orozco Prize from The Entrepreneurship Hatchery.