UC Blue Logo
What are you looking for?

UCLA nurse’s invention may save millions of work hours

Share This Article

Veronica Pellegrino, RN
Veronica Pellegrino, R.N., invented Popsy, which makes it easy for nurses to open pill packaging to dispense medication.

By Kevin McClanahan, UCLA Health

Struggling to open safety-sealed pill packs for hundreds of patients, Veronica Pellegrino, R.N., a nurse on the orthopedic unit at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center, quickly recognized – and set out to solve – a problem affecting the efficiency, comfort and safety of nurses everywhere. 

Now, after leveraging the resources of UCLA Biodesign, winning funding competitions such as the UCLA Health Innovation Challenge, and enlisting the support of consultants to develop a business plan and begin product development, Pellegrino plans to launch her problem-solving device, Popsy, later this year or in early 2025.

“Each pill comes individually wrapped in foil, paper and plastic packaging, and nurses are utilizing precious minutes and using their own nails, scissors, and even pens and other pill packets to open medications. This antiquated process is in desperate need of a product to put time back into nurses’ hands and increase efficiency and safety at the bedside,” said Pellegrino, who has been a nurse for about three years. 

“On a medical-surgical unit like I’m on, sometimes we’re opening up to 100-150 pills in a shift – just constantly using that repetitive motion over and over again,” she said. “It breaks our nails, causes arthritis and causes carpal tunnel syndrome. I began thinking about ways to make this process easier and quicker.”

A two-piece prototype of the device has been reengineered into a single, harder-to-lose, easier-to-use, less-costly-to-produce unit. One of the early design breakthroughs, of sorts, came serendipitously. 

“The model was designed after the effectiveness of a day at work when I had an acrylic, sharp nail on my nails, and I was able to quickly open and dispense the pills,” Pellegrino said. “It makes the process of opening and dispensing pills much more efficient. With the early testing that we’ve done on my unit, it’s up to 85% faster and more effective than the current modalities that nurses use, like scissors, pens and our own fingernails, and it’s much less likely to cause injuries at the bedside.”

Popsy fills a need

In a survey of more than 500 nurses at UCLA Health, 86% said they had never used a device to open and dispense pills; 93% said they would if they had one. Of the 14% who do use a device, all use scissors, pens or other pill packets.

Multiplying these responses by the 2.9 million hospital nurses in the U.S., Pellegrino said Popsy is expected to fill a major need and potentially save nurses millions of work hours each year. After the initial offering to hospital and health care nurses, Popsy is likely to be introduced in other markets, such as for seniors and people who have arthritis or other problems with hand function.

“One of the appeals is that Popsy will be customizable. It’s a great opportunity for nurses to customize it and individualize it themselves,” Pellegrino said. The new prototype is designed in a way that will allow individuals, health care systems and other companies to display a logo or brand identification.

Collaboration with UCLA Biodesign

To reach this stage, Pellegrino was a 2022-2023 UCLA Biodesign Accelerator Fellow, working to advance her design and refine her go-to-market strategy. The yearlong accelerator is open to members of the UCLA Health community, including doctors, nurses, researchers, trainees and staff members. The fellowship provides weekly workshops, fabrication resources and one-on-one mentorship meetings led by UCLA Biodesign faculty. Applications are open for the next UCLA Biodesign Accelerator through June 30, 2024. 

Among other goals, the program is designed to advance concept- and prototype-stage projects and help fellows prepare to bring their ideas to market in the pursuit of health equity. Fellows are also supported by interdisciplinary teams of MBA candidates at the UCLA Anderson School of Management through a course led by Jennifer McCaney, PhD, executive director of UCLA Biodesign, who holds dual appointments on the faculty of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and UCLA Anderson School of Management.

Placing in three pitch competitions at UCLA within the past year, Popsy has raised more than $40,000 in “non-dilutive” funding, which provides capital while enabling a startup to maintain ownership. Pellegrino’s team:

“Veronica’s experience is a perfect example of how someone with an innovative idea, along with focus and determination, can access a range of resources to turn their concept into reality,” said Dr. McCaney, who also serves as associate director of the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). “The UCLA Health Innovation Challenge can be a great start because it is open to our entire community – faculty, staff, trainees, students, patients, caregivers and volunteers. It’s an opportunity for anyone who wants to help advance long-lasting health and equitable care.”

Celebrating its fourth year, the UCLA Health Innovation Challenge offers three competition tracks: Scale Health Equity, Invent HealthTech, and Greatest Idea. The deadline for entries is June 30.

Pellegrino is now working with a design engineer to streamline the production process, and she’s making efforts to secure the funding needed to get Popsy on the market. Her team plans to use digital marketing, brand ambassadors and brand loyalty to get off the ground, following in the footsteps of companies that have built strong relationships with nursing professionals.

A Chicago native who has been passionate about health and wellness, singing and songwriting since she was a teenager, Pellegrino earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing in Cleveland in 2020.

She decided almost on a whim to move to Los Angeles, where she worked as a hostess in a Beverly Hills restaurant. By chance, she met Johnese Spisso, R.N., MPA, president of UCLA Health and CEO of the UCLA Hospital System. Recognizing Spisso’s UCLA blue attire, Pellegrino asked her if she worked at UCLA Health. After learning she was the hospital president, Pellegrino expressed an interest in joining the team; Spisso expressed an interest in having her do so and helped her submit an application.

“Singing and songwriting is my passion, and I love it, but the professional, nursing entrepreneur space is where I feel comfortable working hard to make a difference,” Pellegrino said.

“I would never have gotten as far as I have or been able to do what I’ve been able to do without UCLA Health’s support of my passion. I’m a registered nurse. I have a bachelor’s in nursing, so I had no prior experience in prototyping or business. I went through the UCLA Biodesign Accelerator Fellowship and graduated last year, and it was a great opportunity with a lot of networking. I was raising money. I was learning about the whole process. I was working with a design engineer to help me design my prototypes – and I have a shelf on my wall with dozens of prototypes we made,” Pellegrino said.

Pellegrino said she has pitched her idea in competitions where other presenters were exploring rockets that wouldn’t need fuel, and doctors who had discovered cures for cancers.

“I just feel honored to even be in this space. This is just amazing,” she said. “Even if nothing comes out of this, I think this changed who I am as a person, it changed the way I see the world, and it changed the way I see the entrepreneurial space, especially as a woman. It has been inspiring to just talk to other nurses and feel empowered. There are so many of us, and we are so needed. If you can think of a product that can fulfill a need or help out a nurse, I think it’s going to go far.”

Keep Reading