TikTok entrepreneurs are tackling accessibility in medicine
Endurance athlete Jimmy Choi has been living with Parkinson's for 18 years. In December, he shared a video to show his frustration at not being able to pick up his pills. Within days, the TikTok community began to come up with solutions.
When Jimmy Choi shared his frustration at not being able to pick up his pills on TikTok, he didn’t know who would be listening. Accompanied by Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’, the video showed Jimmy’s hands shaking with Parkinson’s tremors, unable to pick up the tiny pills lying in a fiddly container.
“Hey [pharma] companies...get a clue!” Jimmy vented in his caption. “Sorry, I get a little angry when I am struggling to move sometimes.”
At this point, Jimmy had been living with Parkinson’s for 18 years and raising awareness about the disease for the last eight. Parkinson’s is a neurological disease that worsens over time, often affecting motor function and causing uncontrollable tremors in any muscle in the body.
Holding two Guinness World Records, Jimmy trains as an endurance athlete to increase control over his own body. On an average day, Jimmy can operate at a ‘normal’ level for about 40-45% of the time. As the day goes on, his ability to move diminishes and he’ll experience Parkinson’s fatigue, where all he can do is lie down and rest. For Jimmy, obstacles like accessing his pill bottle are part of everyday life - but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
Jimmy wasn’t alone in his anger. Lying in bed hundreds of miles away, Jimmy’s TikTok popped up on Brian Alldridge’s ‘For You’ page.
Brian immediately scrolled through more of Jimmy’s videos, where he showcases his prowess in the gym. The fact that this man, who could do so much with his body, was unable to access his own medication stirred Brian to action. He went to his computer and started watching YouTube videos on 3D design. Knowing only the basics from previous visual effects work from his entertainment career, Brian swiftly taught himself how to use Fusion, a type of software used in product development.
“Every time I tried to go to bed, I’d just be lying there awake [thinking], that's not it,” Brian says. “It was four in the morning when I finally got to a design I thought was good enough. I hyper-fixated on it because it just made me so sad.”
On 31 December 2020, just three days after Jimmy uploaded his video, Brian shared his initial design to TikTok, asking for people with 3D printers to get in touch. Although keen to make his design a reality, he had no idea how far it was about to go. Within days, more than 50 people from around the world had come forward to tweak the design, offer their own versions, and share feedback.
People with 3D printing machines at home volunteered their equipment to print out prototypes of the collaborative designs being put forward. Designers have also continued to come up with their own versions, their ideas spiralling out from the core purpose like a huge family tree.
“It's incredibly humbling and beautiful to see what can happen when so many people put their minds to the same goal,” Brian says. “It was amazing to see all these people that were so far ahead of me in so many different aspects of design and manufacturing take this little idea and run with it. It's incredible.”
As of January this year, Jimmy, the man who started it all, had tried out four out of the five versions made.
He gave his feedback at every stage, noting at one point that the size of the dispenser was too big. With so much room to shake around inside, the often-brittle pills would break apart and pulverise when in transit, making them unusable. Feedback like this has helped to continually improve and develop the idea.
Jimmy has been blown away by the response to his video. He has worked hard to teach others about issues related to Parkinson’s, sharing stories about his daily life and fitness efforts on TikTok and Instagram. Jimmy is also a patient board member at the Michael J. Fox Foundation, an organization that raises money for Parkinson’s research. He has worked with the foundation for eight years to raise awareness and funds.
“As far as I'm concerned, you just never know who's listening out there,” Jimmy explains. “In this case, Brian was listening. He took it upon himself to create a prototype, and then someone else came in and started printing...and they’re complete strangers. That to me is just absolutely incredible.”
With every new designer who comes to the pill dispenser project, the possibilities for it grow.
David Exler, under the name @hungryengineer on TikTok, has taken over organizing the design efforts for the base build, freeing up Brian’s time to work on patenting the idea. Another TikTok user, @chiefgyk3d, has used his experience in the open-source community to head up research and development, printing and testing new designs all the time. Yet another designer, @cadgineering_designs, took on the task of creating a design that would help people who need to take multiple different pills at one time.
The list of contributors to the project goes on. Each designer or product developer that comes to the project brings something new. What’s more, other people with Parkinson’s or other conditions that affect mobility have also found the project and begun to offer feedback in the comments. Some have even been able to purchase these early inventions at close-to-cost prices.
So what does the future look like for this pill dispenser?
Right now, Brian is working with a lawyer to get a patent for the idea, so that people can carry on creating new designs. His main goal for the patent is to make sure that the collaborative designs can keep going, so anyone can make a similar pill dispenser.
Brian is also conscious of making sure the dispenser is also financially accessible.
“I don't ever want to take advantage of someone's disability, but somebody has to make them and get them distributed. It's been a constant back and forth battle [of] how can we deploy as many of these things as possible while doing the most amount of good as possible.”
A lot of the designers have accepted CashApp and Venmo donations to pay for the 3D printing materials. For Brian, his patenting efforts are deliberately self-funded. When looking at the project as a whole, he is determined to see the dispenser come to market and do right by the rest of the team.
“In a lot of ways, I feel obligated now to do the best I can in terms of getting this onto the mass-manufactured market because [the other designers] have put so much work into it,” Brian explains. “This might be one of the most beneficial things to people that I've ever done and they’re taking it a step further and making it a reality.”
Brian’s plans for bringing the pill dispenser to the mass market include keeping the cost of the dispenser as low as possible, likely around $5. He also wants to run a business model similar to that of Toms Shoes. The shoe brand pioneered the ‘one-to-one concept’, where they donated a pair of shoes to a child in need for every sale of their retail shoes. Brian hopes to emulate this idea, so that every time someone buys a pill dispenser, it offsets the price of a dispenser for someone who can’t afford one themselves.
Seeing what can grow from one eight-second video truly shows what’s possible when people set their minds to something. When big companies let people like Jimmy down, it’s heartening to know that there are teams of people out there willing to do the creative thinking and innovating that larger corporations won’t.
“I think it's important that if you have an idea for something, we have all the knowledge and resources in the world at our fingertips nowadays,” Brian says. “Don't just let an idea be an idea. This whole project has been a testament to just how powerful the internet can be when you point it in the right direction.”