“Pillo, tell me about yourself,” Emanuele Musini, CEO of Boston-based robotics startup Pillo Health, orders.
It’s a bright Monday afternoon, and the three of us—myself, serial entrepreneur Musini and, well, Pillo The Robot—are chatting in a meeting room at WeWork on Melcher Street. Musini and I are sitting around the only wooden table in the room; the topic of our conversation, the $499 healthcare device made by Musini’s startup, is joining us.
The screen of the social robot lights up on cue and Pillo introduces itself in a feminine voice. Its job is to store up to four weeks worth of medications, to alert patients when it’s time to take their pills, and to notify caregivers in case patients forget to comply with their prescriptions.
Like Amazon Echo, Pillo would quietly wait for instructions sitting on a kitchen counter, or somewhere in grandma’s living room. Like Alexa, Pillo can answer questions by pulling info from the web: I asked the robot, “OK Pillo, how’s the weather today?” and it dutifully informed me on the upcoming temperatures, unimpressed by a storm alert.
Unlike Alexa, Pillo releases pre-loaded pills from a circular dispenser that can store up to 28 doses to a small glass under its screen—only after confirming the patient’s identity thanks to facial recognition software. Making video-calls and having a ready database of 400 videos about healthy habits are also among Pillo’s skills.
In-depth news coverage of the Greater Boston Area.
Musini told me that he sees Pillo as a solution for medication non-adherence, an umbrella definition for all the reasons why patients don’t take their prescriptions— Approximately 30 to 50 percent of U.S. adults, leading to an estimated $100 billion in preventable costs annually. In 2015, Musini’s father was hit by a heart attack as a result of non-adherence; after, Musini couldn’t help but ask himself “What if someone was home with him?”
“Non-adherence kills people,” Musini said. “An alarm [on your phone] can’t be the solution; you need an extra touch.”
Enter Pillo, which constantly monitors the situation on behalf of adults who can’t be home to take care of loved ones all day. Peace of mind aside, Pillo’s alert system, which persistently reaches out to caregivers when necessary, is definitely a step ahead of easy-to-ignore push notifications on patients’ phones. In addition to consumers, Musini also sees a business-to-business use of Pillo, for providers and nursing homes.
“Pillo allows people with chronic conditions to live independently,” Musini said.
Whether or not Pillo is the one-stop solution to non-adherence is yet to be discovered. In some cases, patients don’t take medications for psychological or financial reasons that Pillo can’t address. Yet let’s assume that an Alexa-like pill dispenser significantly improves the problem; in that case, it would take Amazon only a few tweaks to invade the market with a similar device—and Amazon has a longtime interest in the pharmaceutical market, as proved by its acquisition of PillPack last year.
“Alexa now is a smart-speaker,” Musini said. “The market is gigantic. The consumerization of healthcare is nothing but positive… We’re a healthcare robot and want to stay away from what Alexa does.”
Musini, who started Pillo Health in December 2015 in New York City but moved to Boston shortly after, is also well-aware of the story of another smart robot that oddly looks like Pillo and faced competition with Alexa—Jibo, the brainchild of Cynthia Breazeal.
The company validated its idea of a social robot for home with a $3.6 million crowdfunding campaign in 2014 and landed the cover of Time magazine in 2017; after, things didn’t go as planned. The $899 “adorable” and “pretty daft conversationalist” device began shipping with delays, among evidence of layoffs and empty office space, until the company closed its doors.
For Musini, the story of Jibo is a cautionary tale. He declined to discuss “what the company did wrong,” but he pointed out: “We’re playing in healthcare. Our solution dispenses meds; this value is still untapped.”
Pillo’s tag price ($499) is almost half than what Jibo used to cost ($899), but almost three times Amazon Echo ($180). On top of that, Pillo requires a $40 monthly subscription cost for maintenance, Musini said.
Pillo just entered the market. The company counts Stanley Black & Decker among its investors, with total funding around $9 million and, possibly, more coming. Currently, Pillo operates out of WeWork in Boston with a team of eight product and business development managers, plus a team of 25 engineers in Genoa, Italy.