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Nanodropper co-founders Jennifer Steger and Mackenzie Andrews, who founded the company with CEO Allisa Song. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

Nanodropper, a medical device startup founded by a group of University of Washington students, has developed an adapter that makes eye drops smaller. It’s a way for people with glaucoma and other eye diseases to waste less of their medication and save money.

It’s a simple solution, but for economic reasons, it’s not one that major pharmaceutical companies are ready to embrace.

And here’s the unusual twist. The idea was inspired by an article published by NPR and ProPublica, which pointed out how pharmaceutical companies make eye drops that are larger than what the human eye can physically absorb. Glaucoma drugs, which cost hundreds of dollars per month, need to be taken every day to prevent blindness. Too often, patients have to make the choice between paying for their medication or other necessary expenses.

“You always hope, when you do these stories, that someone will do something about it,” Marshall Allen, the journalist who wrote the article, told GeekWire. Nanodropper, he said, is “doing exactly what others need to do when it comes to fixing our healthcare system … You can’t wait for someone else who doesn’t have the incentive to fix a problem.”

So where is Nanodropper headed? And what does its story say about the state of the industry? On this episode of the GeekWire Health Tech podcast, we catch up with Nanodropper co-founders Jennifer Steger and Mackenzie Andrews, who founded the company with CEO Allisa Song.

Listen to the episode in the player above or subscribe to Health Tech in your favorite podcast app, and continue reading for more.

We first met Nanodropper when the startup won the student Health Innovation Challenge at the University of Washington. But it was far from the only group looking to make healthcare cheaper or more accessible. Andrews and Steger said that most of their classmates support universal healthcare and embrace the industry’s shift towards value-based standards of care.

“We’ve gotten so many emails, so many patient accounts of people that just can’t afford their medications. And they are either not paying their rent, or they’re going blind,” said Andrews, who is Nanodropper’s chief communications officer.

Jennifer Steger, Mackenzie Andrews and Allisa Song won the top prize at Univ. of Washington health innovation challenge in March. (Matt Hagen / UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship Photo)

“In my opinion, healthcare should be a right. It shouldn’t be something that only wealthy people are eligible for. So I think that’s really where the motivation comes from, to essentially level the playing field,” said Steger, Nanodropper’s chief scientific officer.

Nanodropper has FDA approval and is gearing up to manufacture and distribute its device. The team, which has raised more than $200,000 in investments and grants, is in distribution talks with Bartell Drugs and Kaiser Permanente, as well as independent ophthalmology clinics.

“The response that we’ve gotten has been extremely positive,” said Andrews. “Fortunately, after the Health Innovation Challenge, we had an incredible response from the local community and are now financed to the point of being able to start manufacturing.”

Nanodropper developed an attachment that makes eye drops smaller. (Nanodropper via YouTube)

What’s remarkable about the Nanodropper team is that three out of four of them have a job or are still in school. Steger, 27, and Andrews, 22, both study at UW; Steger is a doctoral student in neuropharmacology and Andrews is a master’s student of bioengineering. Nanodropper CEO Allisa Song, 26, is a medical student at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine.

Nanodropper COO Elias Baker, 26, who previously worked with SpaceX and Spacelabs Healthcare, is the only current full-time employee.

One question they get asked all the time: Won’t the drug companies squash you?

“Thus far, the answer is no. We just try to pay attention to the number of people that we have the potential to help,” said Steger.

Both Steger and Andrews said they would like to see more health companies hire young people with an entrepreneurial mindset and place less emphasis on resumes and academic experience. “When people are allowed to think creatively and sort of step outside the box, I think that’s really where the magic happens,” said Steger.

The pair also offered advice for next year’s freshman class on how to get the most out of their experience. “Keep your eyes open for the problems that are out there, because you’re going to be taught the skills of how to make the solutions. That’s what you’re in school to do,” said Andrews.

“Just go after it. If you have an idea, pursue it,” said Steger. “Gather a group of people that you think have the right skills, the right qualities to really solve this problem and just do it.”

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