How This Mexican Immigrant Became an Entrepreneur Right Out of College
By: Tess Murphy
As a senior in college, Abe Matamoros spent many hours bent over a 3D printer, waiting for it to crank out prototype after prototype. He’d bring his homework to a makerspace after soccer practice, and watch the machine for hours, hoping that this time it wouldn’t fail on him. He had an idea for a product that couldn’t wait until after graduation to make.
Abe’s spirit of entrepreneurship and determination was inspired by his parents. Although Abe and his family moved to the United States from Mexico at the age of 8, his Mexican heritage stayed with him throughout his young adult life.
“A lot of being an entrepreneur isn’t just about being smart, it’s about being relentless, and hard working. When it comes to work ethic, it’s hard to compete against the Mexicans, and how hard we work. We will be there no matter what. It doesn’t matter if it’s the worst job or the best job, we’ll take it and we’ll work hard at it,” Abe says.
In those long hours between classes, Abe couldn’t have known then that in the coming year he would create a health product that would go on to win awards from IBM and Takeda, become certified by Arrow Electronics and raise almost $80,000 on Indiegogo, opening the door to future investments.
A jarring life experience becomes his next product idea
When Abe discovered his grandfather bedridden in his apartment, shivering and unable to move because he forgot to take his medicine for three days, he started looking into what happened and how it could have been prevented. Abe discovered a systemic problem with anyone who takes multiple medications a day. Traditional pillboxes made managing prescriptions cumbersome, and Abe’s grandfather had fallen behind and couldn’t track which medication he forgot.
Abe turned to his childhood friend, Regina Vatterott, for answers. Regina had advertised for a lot of independent pharmacies and was able to confirm Abe’s suspicions: 106 million people in just the United States have multiple chronic illnesses and 50% of patients don’t take their medications as prescribed. They forget to take it, take the wrong one or at the wrong time and this results in direct costs of $300 billion a year to the healthcare industry as a whole (insurance providers, patients and more).
Regina and Abe saw a huge problem in this industry and a potential for a marketable solution. And although many companies were trying to solve it, their products were missing the mark. Abe and Regina decided that by targeting the baby boomers, between 50 and 70 years old, who largely used technology, they could create the next health product.
“We thought, what if we target this demographic instead, they are open to technology, and we can grow old with them, instead of trying to force ourselves to this older demographic,” says Abe.
This shift in target audience would set both their marketing strategy and product design on the path to success. “We built a product for them that didn’t look like a pillbox,” says Abe.
“It has a nice design without be stigmatizing and, at the same time, helps them organize much more quickly, reminding them to take their medicine and track compliance.” The Elliegrid pillbox was born.
Building the product post-graduation
From this inception, making Elliegrid a reality became a collaborative effort across a team of young classmates and friends. Abe brought together his childhood friend Regina and his friend from college, Nicolas Dhanam, a mechanical engineer, to execute on it.
“We all wanted to help people and make a positive impact on the world. And we were fascinated with the idea of doing it through entrepreneurship.”
Nick and Abe took advantage of the nonprofit makerspace next to their school to use their 3D printers. “At the time, there were these makers bots that would work about 20% of the time. So I had to sit there and just watch it print, and 5 hours later that print would fail, and I’d have to start over. I probably have over 100 wasted hours in front of a 3D printer because I really wanted the part to print. I would bring my homework and just sit there, and go back and forth between my homework and this printer,“ says Abe. His determination paid off.
Upon graduating, the group had a few workable 3D models and were ready to take their idea to the next level. Abe moved in with his parents in Houston to save money and continue to pursue his dream. “They’ve been extremely supportive of everything. A lot of parents would rather their kids go to medical school or get a job. I might have been able to get a six-figure job out of college but I got a zero figure job. They trust me and the decisions I make, whether it’s becoming a professional soccer player or a poor entrepreneur,” he says.
Abe, Regina and Nick decided to focus their time after college in building this product and learning as much as possible. “We tried going to a couple investors early on, and it felt like we were too early. The investors saw kids who had just graduated college, never manufactured anything in their lives, who are pitching an idea with a raggedy prototype,” Abe says.
“The investors saw kids who had just graduated college, never manufactured anything in their lives, who are pitching an idea with a raggedy prototype.”
Instead, they focused their funding efforts on business plan competitions, which also helped build credibility and recognition from big brand names, such as IBM and Takeda. “We won things like the IBM hackathon and the Hardware Cup in Austin, that gave us free access to a really great prototyping facility,” says Abe. As their prototypes grew and evolved, so did their team.
At a Hardware Meetup, they met their newest member and current CTO, Hieu Nguyen, who essentially builds the technology inside Elliegrid.
Once the team had a good idea of what their customer was looking for, knew what the final parts of Elliegrid were going to be, secured their manufacturing partner and had the prototypes done, they decided to turn to crowdfunding.
The team launched their product on Indiegogo to gauge interest with customers. Without putting any money behind marketing, they were able to sell over 500 units in two months.
Moving forward, they are on track to ship in May of 2017. “We aren’t naive to the fact that things can come up and sometimes, little things cause huge setbacks, but we haven’t hit those little things yet,” Abe says. Backers get a behind the scenes look at how the product is made, how to build a mold, where to manufacture and what setbacks can happen. “We want to keep them updated so they feel part of the process, they’re not just a customer, but they’re almost like a part of the team,” he says.
Elliegrid was born from a team of hardworking, young entrepreneurs, all from immigrant families, ranging from Mexico to Hungary, Vietnam and India. Together, this diversity of cultures and experiences shaped the Elliegrid team and business into what it is today.