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Tough Pill to Follow

Wednesday, June 27, 2018
 Andrew Aertker, Gavin Buchanan, and Danny Anderson hold giant cheque

Trinity startup’s smart pill bottle could revolutionize clinical trials, prevent abuse

by Jeremy Gerlach

Miles away from a patient’s bathroom counter, a clinician’s computer beeps.

This isn’t an email, a news update, or Facebook updating its privacy policy: It’s an alert that the patient has taken too many—or too few—pills out of his or her bottle.

Meet Trinity startup PATCH, which stands for Pill-Administering Technology for Compliance Healthcare. The brainchild of Gavin Buchanan ’19 and Andrew Aertker ’21, PATCH is a smart pill bottle that will allow clinical trial researchers to see whether their patients are taking their medicines correctly.

“This is basically where the PEZ dispenser meets the internet,” Buchanan says. “We’re combining medicine with real-time data, and this could have a huge effect on patients across America.”

While PATCH is aimed at improving the accuracy of clinical research, it started as a solution to substance abuse, Aertker notes. “Our original idea was to simply make pill bottles harder to open,” he says, referring to a 2009 Oxford University study, which revealed that making pill bottles harder to open decreased suicide rates by about 40 percent. The group was also spurred by America’s opioid crisis—a 21 percent spike in nationwide prescription painkiller abuse and heroin overdoses in 2015.

But making medicine less physically accessible, even for noble purposes, presents its own problems, Buchanan adds. So, the group hatched an idea for a self-regulating pill bottle that uses data—not white knuckles—to keep people safe.

“With PATCH, we wanted to curb addiction before it even starts,” Buchanan says. “And that motivation definitely carries through to the design you see today.”

There is no shortage of companies that boast “smart pill bottles” that remind patients to take pills, but PATCH is one of the first to pitch a design that gives administering researchers and medical personnel direct, real-time data about whether patients are taking pills as prescribed. While Buchanan and Aertker are still honing their prototype, the basic design for PATCH works as follows: Pills are packaged in cartridges that each transmit data via Bluetooth “low-energy” technology to cloud-based servers, which clinicians and other medical personnel can access directly.

This fusion of tech, engineering, and computing is just what the doctor ordered for Buchanan, a mathematical finance major from Decatur, Texas, and Aertker, a computer science major from Denver.

“At Trinity, whether you’re in computer science or finance, you have to constantly be in a mindset of, ‘How do I innovate? How can I solve a problem in a different way?” Aertker says. “And that’s the approach we took with PATCH.”

But innovation alone is no guarantee a startup like PATCH will transform into a sustainable business: You also need funding, investors, and a strong network of mentors who know your market. And that’s where Trinity’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship department steps in.

Andrew Aertker pitches his product

PATCH is fresh off winning a $5,000 prize in the preliminary round of the Stumberg Venture Competition, Trinity’s annual multi-stage contest where students launch their own startups. As one of five finalists in this ongoing competition, the team also gets a spot in Trinity’s Summer Accelerator program, which provides an additional $4,000 for each member of the startup, free housing, and additional resources.

“Trinity gives you pretty much everything you need for your startup right here on campus—even an office in CSI [the Center for the Sciences and Innovation],” Buchanan says. “We also have a membership at Geekdom, another San Antonio work sharing space for startups and techies just minutes from campus.”

With these in-house resources, Buchanan and Aertker are spending their summer honing their product in preparation for Stumberg’s final round this fall, with a $25,000 grand prize at stake. But Trinity’s entrepreneurship program also gives the PATCH team a link to San Antonio’s thriving startup culture.

“The number one thing Trinity provides for us is connections to San Antonio’s realm of entrepreneurs,” Aertker says. “We get this outreach from patent lawyers, other startups, medical professionals, and everyone in between—so we get an idea of everything that our business needs to be.”

Luis Martinez ’91, director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and David Girault ’91, Trinity’s entrepreneur-in-residence, are key figures in helping startups like PATCH make these connections.

“Having their leadership is absolutely phenomenal,” Aertker says. “When we run into problems, they give us guidance and help us figure out how to adapt.”

Trinity’s network also extends to San Antonio’s huge medical community. Martinez connected Buchanan and Aertker to Dr. Joseph Schmelz, director of clinical trials at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Schmelz, along with other experts, served as a mentor to the PATCH team, helping them find the ideal market for their product: clinical trial researchers.

With this real-world feedback in hand, PATCH continues to shape an investment strategy for their startup, lining up potential clients, working with designers to finalize the product prototype, and teaming up with programmers—including Nathan Dullea ’18, a fellow computer science major at Trinity—to get PATCH’s software set up.

And while PATCH has transformed into a device meant for clinical trials—rather than a catch-all for preventing addiction—the group says the product can still contribute to saving lives through research.  

“We founded PATCH with the idea that we can help people who are suffering,” Buchanan says. “People’s lives shouldn’t have to revolve around medication, but for those who need it, PATCH can be part of a better solution.”

PATCH is one of five finalists who’ll be competing for a $25,000 grand prize in seed money at the Louis H. Stumberg Venture Competition’s final round this October. Find more about these five teams at Trinity’s Facebook page and online at Trinity.edu.