A national business magazine considers a Columbus native one of the best young innovators in the United States and Canada.
Gautam Chebrolu, 23, a 2013 graduate of Columbus High School, is among the 600 twentysomethings on the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Only the top 4 percent of the approximately 15,000 nominees were selected.
Forbes, headquartered in Jersey City, N.J., divided the prestigious list into 20 categories, each comprising 30 honorees. Chebrolu and his business partner, Yossuf Albanawi, 24, are in the social entrepreneurs category, highlighting leaders trying to change society. They met during the summer of 2017, when Chebrolu texted the phone number on an “Engineers Wanted” flyer posted in a Duke University coffee shop.
About a year ago, Chebrolu and Albanawi cofounded Pilleve, whose goal is to prevent opioid abuse and addition.
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“Every single person we knew was affected by substance abuse in some way, whether it was a friend or family member, or him or herself,” Chebrolu said in an emailed interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “So we decided to do something about it.”
Chebrolu, the 2013 Ledger-Enquirer Page One Award winner in math, earned a dual bachelor’s degree in biomedical and electrical/computer engineering from Duke University in 2017. Albanawi earned a bachelor’s degree in communication and entrepreneurship from Wake Forest University in 2017.
They read research that says nearly 80 percent of heroin abusers started their opioid addiction with prescription pills. That means, Chebrolu said, “the first step was to monitor exactly how prescription opioids are used and guide the patient to make more informed decisions.”
So they built a portable and tamper-evident prescription bottle that dispenses the pills one at a time when activated by a smartphone app. Their invention is “allowing us to engage patients at the point of intake and capture important data related to pain and functionality,” he said.
The data is relayed to healthcare providers for them to track the usage, Chebrolu said, “so they can provide the best care for their patients without extra hassle and provide an intervention if necessary.”
Their product is being tested in a pilot program “with one of the largest pain clinics” in Maryland, he said.
“In some initial tests,” Chebrolu said, “we saw that postoperative patients used on average 63 percent fewer opioids when compared to the national average for a similar surgery. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), there is a direct positive correlation between the number of pills a patient takes and the risk of abuse and addiction, so we are pleased with the results but want to prove it on a wider scale.”
The pilot program has three patients now, 20 promised by the end of the month and contracts in the works to reach 200 by the spring, Chebrolu said.
“Our goal is to be in the hands of at least 1,000 patients by the end of the year,” he said. “We are working with physicians and their respective patients rather than selling to individual patients at the moment because we also do work on integrating patient data seamlessly into provider workflows. We are focusing on the D.C. region because of our connections . . . and are already looking at options here in Columbus, Chicago and San Francisco.”
Chebrolu and Albanawi participated in a residential businesses incubator program in Washington, D.C., called Halcyon, which provides housing and a stipend to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas into reality. The leadership of that program nominated them for the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. The Forbes staff narrowed the nominations to approximately 60 per category, and a panel of experts determined the winners.
Chebrolu said he is in awe of being among the honorees.
“There was no real expectation that we would get this recognition,” he said, “and throughout the past year and a half that I’ve been working on this project, we met so many amazing and incredible people that are excelling in their field, so we just expected to be the little fish for a little while. But we realized that, more importantly, our work is really resonating with a lot of people.”
Chebrolu explained that resonance.
“There is a huge breakdown of trust between patients and physicians, where physicians want to be careful for fear of losing their license or getting a malpractice suit, and patients want their doctors to trust that they will use their medication safely,” he said. “However, the most important idea — which sounds incredibly obvious but needs to be repeated — is that no one ever comes into a prescription with the intent to become addicted; it just happens slowly over time, and it happens to people who access medication that isn’t theirs.”
Acknowledging other companies produce smart pillboxes, Chebrolu contends “none of them have become successful because they are too expensive, bulky, unsecure or just plain ineffective. So we decided to make the simplest and cheapest solution.”
Their device costs users $10.
“We negotiate the specifics of the business model with each healthcare system because of a little bit of variance in the reimbursement procedures,” Chebrolu said. “... We have identified existing billing codes that providers can use to get reimbursed for simply using the Pilleve system and are in the process of developing our own personal billing codes. In this way, patients will not have to pay anything other than the cost for the medication itself.”
He called Pilleve a “win-win-win-win” situation for patients, physicians, pharmacists and insurers.
Chebrolu, who now lives in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., gives Columbus a lot of credit for helping to raise him. He recalled having his fourth birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s in Cross Country Plaza, playing T-ball at Double Churches Park and soccer at the Woodruff Farm Road complex. Before graduating from Columbus High, he attended Calvary Christian School, Britt David Magnet Academy and Blackmon Road Middle School.
“The community here created me,” he said.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.