Ankur Aggarwal: Alumni, CTO, and healthcare entrepreneur
By Caroline Osterman
“I felt like I was living and breathing in an environment of technological innovation.” Ankur thinks fondly to his childhood in Silicon Valley, a bustling place of science and high technology that would one day inspire him to develop his love for engineering. Ankur knew he wanted to be a part of it all and one day impact the world. Hardware electronics are what ultimately fascinated him — the challenge as well as its relevance in all fields of technology. It’s electrical engineers we have to thank for our everyday gadgets, he reminds me. They’re really the ones responsible for the “cool factor.”
When Ankur accepted a spot in the inaugural cohort of the Master of Engineering program at UC Berkeley, he was thrilled to return to his undergraduate alma mater. He was also thrilled to be studying the perfect combination of things he had been interested in. “I definitely wanted to push my technical depth further, but I also wanted to broaden my horizons into areas like business and entrepreneurship,” he recalls. He wanted to work on projects that would allow him to lead as much as he designed — the MEng program was a perfect fit for the holistic curriculum that he wanted in a master’s.
“It’s so thrilling to see the program mature and grow from the awesome class that I had the fortune of joining!”
The first MEng class, which graduated in 2012 and was comprised of around 80 students, was a nurturing and inspiriting community for Ankur’s graduate year. With the small student-to-teacher ratio and the close advisement on capstone projects, he received enormous attention and support from his educators, both in and out of the classroom. It was truly the best that UC Berkeley has to offer, Ankur expressed to me. Studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS) showed him how many problems across all different domains electronics engineering can address. His coursework included circuit design, digital logic, sensors and actuators, and related topics. His capstone — a group project that MEng students design and build over the year under faculty advisement — addressed household energy conservation and gave him both technical and practical training that he has brought to his current career in healthcare.
A Company for a Cause
Upon graduation, Ankur was determined to apply his technical and leadership background towards an innovative technology that would drive strong social impact. Ultimately, he helped found a company that addressed something quite personal and dear to him. Friend and cofounder Nick Valilis spent the last three years of his life contributing to the cause.
In 2012, Nick was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Ankur describes him as a bright and driven man who decided to help turn his misfortune into something stunning and impactful. Ankur, Nick, and fellow cofounders Hareesh Ganesan and Rahul Jain came together to address a crucial matter that was affecting Nick daily: medication adherence. While battling leukemia, Nick was also attending medical school at the University of Texas, a demanding schedule that frequently led him to forget to take his medications. If someone as bright as Nick was having difficulty adhering to their regimen, Ankur explains, then anyone could.
Thus TowerView Health was founded. Ankur and his team created a product that would revolutionize the way people manage their medications: the pillbox. A smart device that stores your week’s medications, the pillbox also senses if and when you have taken your pills, triggers reminders, and sends the data to TowerView’s backend. This allows you, your caregivers, and designated health professionals to receive a comprehensive history of your adherence to your medication regimen. TowerView also has personal assistants who work with your doctor, pharmacy, and insurance to customize your pillbox inserts.
“We saw that so many people lacked a reasonable solution to help manage their medications, and were losing immensely because of it, both in health and wealth,” Ankur explains.
“We continue with Nick’s same fervor, trying to bring his solution to the millions of Americans who struggle to take their medications, in honor of his legacy.”
A video featuring Nick and Rahul presenting the company at the Dreamit Health Philadelphia incubator in 2014 is available to watch here.
According to Ankur, though, TowerView is more than just changing the way people take their medications. The company seeks to impact and improve the lives of patients everywhere who are suffering from chronic illness or other critical conditions. While many people simply forget to take their medications on time, the pillbox can also be especially useful in assisting the elderly, or those who take multiple doses a day. When asked what he looks for in an ideal customer, Ankur’s response is concise: “We’re interested in working with anyone who is taking multiple medications and just wants a more convenient way to manage their regimen. If you meet that criterion, we can help!”
Several years later, TowerView Health has expanded their operations to several states and has even made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. I spoke with Ankur about what experiences and skills assisted him in founding TowerView Health, and what he hopes it will become.
What are some entrepreneurial or leadership skills taught in the MEng program that assisted you in founding TowerView Health?
One skill in particular I’d like to mention, and is important for anyone else from MEng considering the entrepreneurial path, is the ability to communicate with others. Nobody in the startup world gets anywhere without being able to ask for help in a manner that is clear, concise, polite, and able to convey a sense of mutual benefit. The many presentations that we had to do, both for the capstone project and in class, and even exercises like the “expert interview,” where we put together a list of questions for an “expert” outside the program to help us address for the successful completions of our projects, helped us develop those skills. Of course, it is important to be able to achieve these goals in both written and oral communication, and I feel like MEng put the right emphasis in both areas.
On the engineering side, the one word that all of my technical classes used, especially on the hardware side, was “tradeoff.” This concept is unavoidable in any enterprise, and engineers, especially Berkeley engineers, learn to understand how to design to achieve the best possible product for the customer given their preferences, knowing that there is no magic wand to solve all problems simultaneously. And this idea of managing tradeoffs applies not just in engineering and product design, but also at the level of project management, where one often has to find the right compromise between speed, cost, and beauty to address a stakeholder need at a particular milestone of the company’s development. As much as it may seem counter-intuitive, especially to the idealistic, we must never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And sometimes, you really have to put your foot down and say “There’s no way I’m going to cut corners on this feature to save a couple of pennies per unit!” or vice versa. But that comes from knowing your customer, and being aware that you’re always going to be confronted with those choices.
After graduation, you worked briefly as a Technical Specialist with a law firm that specializes in intellectual property law. Did this position guide your experience as a founder and CTO in any way?
Absolutely! My increased understanding of the patent system helped guide my design of the product (so as to avoid infringing on existing IP) and put together our own IP portfolio. I actually wrote most of our patent applications! And the IP system can be opaque and frustrating for a lot of founders from outside that world, so the experience that I had definitely helped pierce that veil for myself and my team. As a CTO, it’s part of my job to stay on top of IP issues, so having that bit of background certainly helps. Plus, as a side bonus, I got to learn about quite a few cool technologies during my time in IP/patent law.
How do you hope to influence healthcare following the launch of the pillbox?
The pillbox is just the tip of the iceberg. We also have most of our patients sign on to our pre-filled tray service, so that they don’t even have to load their pills themselves, but just pop their weekly tray into the pillbox, pre-organized by our pharmacy partners. What we really bring to our patients, in addition to the pillbox and its benefits, is pure convenience, in that they don’t have to go to the pharmacy themselves, nor struggle with loading their pills into the pillbox correctly.
What does it mean to you to provide this service?
From a bird’s eye view, we know that we’re on the path to helping solve a problem that costs the US economy $100 billion+ a year, and 100k+ human lives. Working toward that sort of impact is hugely motivating. And on the journey there, regularly receiving positive reinforcement from patients whose lives are being transformed by our product and service is a huge morale booster for those challenging times when we run into the occasional setback.
Do you have data regarding how many patients you’re currently reaching and where they are? Do you have plans to scale?
Right now, we’ve enrolled about 1,500 members in our insurance company contracts, which are already scoped to cover 15,000 high-risk patients from our health plan partners. These patients receive the pillbox and tray service covered 100% by their insurance plan! And we’re getting great data from these patients, to the point where we’re literally able to have our pharmacist partners tell patients which medications they are mixing, but shouldn’t be. We have patients in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas, and California.
As far as scaling goes, we expect that our success with our current health insurance contracts will lead to larger contracts with the same plans, and more contracts with others. We absolutely hope to scale in more U.S. States. We’re building out our partnerships with pharmacies in order to be able to deliver in more and more states, and hopefully even take this show internationally! We’re also going direct to consumer with a free tray service, and the addition of a pillbox for $14.99 a month. Anyone who is interested for either themselves or a loved one can check us out at www.pillbox.com!
To Our Future Engineers and Entrepreneurs…
Ankur passes along some thoughtful advice to current Master of Engineering students:
For MEng students in EECS, specifically — I encourage them to sharpen their chops in embedded systems engineering, as the space of IoT products is destined to only grow higher: not even the sky is the limit! Learn to shop on Digikey, Octopart, and Alibaba, learn what’s out there, and how you can take advantage of off-the-shelf technologies in novel designs.
For students in all engineering disciplines — learn what Design for Manufacturing (DFM) means, and how it applies to the best practices in your field… if you design something that cannot be made in a scalable, error-tolerant, and cost-effective, way, don’t even bother.
For the prospective entrepreneurs out there — I cannot repeat enough the cliche that “it takes a village to raise a baby.” I don’t know if that’s true literally, since I don’t have any kids of my own yet, but as far as a business goes, you need to treat it like your baby, and you should never feel like you have to go in alone. Reach out to advisors and mentors. Network relentlessly… and I don’t mean just going to tech meet-ups and schmoozing around for free beer, though that part is fun, too. Seek out experts in a purpose-driven manner and steer the discussion to how you can create value together and work for mutual benefit. Apply to incubators and accelerators. Join MakerSpaces (we used TechShop and NoiseBridge in SF, and we use NextFab here in Philly.) Browse and put out feelers on AngelList and HackerNews for what you might need. Don’t be afraid to cold-email anyone, from a grad student at a distant university to a big company executive — as long as you’re polite, concise, and respectful of their time. And while I can’t make promises, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Lastly — MEng, and the Fung Institute as a whole, is set up to promote Engineering Leadership. I truly believe that the Leadership part of it comes not just from understanding how to fashion a product into existence, hard enough as that can be, but going the extra, further step to deeply understanding your end users. Don’t just say you’re keeping them in mind; actually talk to them and account for their feedback in your product design iterations. You can’t please everyone, and that’s a hard lesson which I touch on in my discussion on tradeoffs, but there is no excuse for letting your status as an engineer obscure your knowledge of your impact on the community. If you want to work within the confines of your current company but also make sure that you’re making something that people actually desire, then make sure to speak up and work with your management to directly call or focus group with your customers. If your culture discourages this, try to change it, or perhaps seek greener pastures.
About the Alumni
Ankur Aggarwal graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS) in 2011, and again from the Master of Engineering’s inaugural cohort with the EECS department in 2012. Ankur is currently CTO of TowerView Health, where he manages hardware design, development, testing, iteration, and manufacturing, as well as their intellectual property portfolio.