Fourth-year mechatronic systems engineering student Rame Putris is a member of the Technology Entrepreneurship@SFU (Tech e@SFU) initiative.
The program, launched in 2012 in partnership with BCIC, Ken Spencer, the Faculty of Applied Sciences and the Beedie School of Business, brings together the best and brightest students to develop entrepreneurially promising and scientifically sound ideas. As part of five-person team, with four fellow mechatronics students and one business student, Putris is developing an innovative medication management system called ePione.
In this Q & A, Putris talks about his team’s market-driven product, his inspiration, and how the Tech e@SFU has helped him hone his entrepreneurial skills.
How did you hear about Tech e@SFU and why did you want to get involved?
My teammate, Amanda Hehr, who I’ve been working with in mechatronics for years, was actually looking at the program and encouraged me to apply. But I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship. In fact, one of the reasons I got into engineering, other than the fact that I loved physics, was so that I would have a good medium for business.
Who or what inspired you to study engineering?
My dad was a big inspiration. When I was growing up, he owned a pharmacy but he also had his own manufacturing company producing light fixtures and he managed a television set manufacturing plant, too. Originally, I wanted to be a doctor, but my high school physics teacher said, “You’re too good at physics to be a doctor, you’re going to be an engineer!” A couple of years later, here I am at engineering school.
How did the idea for your team’s product, ePione, develop?
We [the team] were trying to come up with ideas together about what we wanted to do. Since my dad is a pharmacist and pharmacy manager, I’d heard him speaking about pharmaceutical robots and how difficult they can be to operate. One of our team members, Ane Tendo, was a pharmacy technician, so he also had experience with blister packs and pill sorting.
We wanted to address the consumer market and make a device that helps customers dealing with many medications. We researched and found non-adherence was a very serious problem, so our idea was validated from the start. We decided to develop a pill-dispensing machine that took in customised blister packs. For customers, this will be a reliable device that will help them adhere to their medication.
Tell us more about how you envision ePione? How will it help people?
In terms of design, it’s a small counter-top device that will accept customized [pill] blister packages. Each blister pack will have the customer’s medication regimen embedded within it. Through the embedded data, the device will know exactly what medication to dispense and it will remind the customers when they need to take their medication.
We’ll also create a smartphone app to work with the device. If the person forgets to check their phone (for example, if they have Alzheimer’s or dementia) the app can be configured to notify a family member or caregiver. This is important as research indicates that 23 per cent of patient non-adherence problems result from forgetfulness. We wanted to take an integrated approach that other products on the market don’t tackle at once.
What is like when mechatronic systems engineering students and business students work together?
Just as I’ve spent many years in engineering honing my skills, [the business students] have been been doing the same thing in the business field. We started to build a mutual bond as we collaborated to come up with ideas, to make our presentation and business pitches successful, and to develop an aesthetically pleasing product. Now we’ve developed more of a friendship than just a business connection, and that’s very rewarding.
At what stage is the project currently, and how are you moving forwards?
We have just received funding from the Tech e@SFU program to build a prototype, and we also won two awards from the Beedie School of Business’ Opportunity Fest, and this will also go toward funding. We’ll create the prototype ourselves: testing it and validating feasibility and reliability.
In August, we’ll demo our prototypes at the mechatronics capstone projects presentation. After this, we’ll re-approach key people in industry that we’ve been connected to through the Tech e@SFU program and try to secure further funding to make a more compact and market-ready device.
What have you gained from the TechE program?
I have gained a lot. Knowledge of business is a huge asset. I realized that I need to familiarize myself with business terminology and strategies, and examine how to bridge the profit-making side of the business with the technology side. I’ve learned that having people skills is very important, especially communicating with someone who’s not familiar with the technical side of things.
Though we are pursuing something to help people, we also have to convince people in business that it is also going to make them money. Connecting with business people and understanding their mindset is something that I’m much more familiar with now.
Also, patience: I’ve learned that things take time and effort and you need just keep trying.
How does it feel to know your product is going into the product development stage?
I am super excited. Even though I have exams, every time I take a break I Google something to see how to make it better. When you’re building something, it’s your baby; you’re responsible for making it come alive. The more you think about it, the more you want to work on it.
What would you say to someone who’s interested in the Tech e@SFU program?
Firstly, I would say to focus really hard on your concepts covered in class. In order to build anything you have to know how to do it; then you can combine those concepts and come up with ideas to make things work.
You should expect challenge and be ready to develop people skills. It’s a very exciting program that connects you with people, so be excited to learn a lot. You’ll learn what it takes to succeed, and as an undergraduate, it’s not catastrophic if you experience failure along the way. Besides, you have great mentorship on the technology and business side as Dr. Oldknow and Dr. Lubick are both fantastic coordinators. Their organization and dedication is phenomenal. Overall, it’s a very exciting and fun ride.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I want to emphasise that it’s a team thing. We have developed our team skills in mechatronics over semesters and years now and we know each other almost as brothers and sisters. I’m very thankful for my teammates and the mentorship we have received is extraordinary. We’re all so grateful and lucky to have Dr. Oldknow and his wealth of knowledge and experience.