'There was a problem I had that I couldn't find a product to solve.' — Kate Bouchard is filling a healthtech gap
Leaning on experiences from her own healthcare journey, Bouchard is building a smart pillbox through her startup, Loba.
When my Zoom call with Kate Bouchard connected, I made out a few items from her apartment in the background of the screen. A trendy, gold wall sconce; a rather healthy looking house plant; a window emitting what natural light an overcast February day in Vancouver could muster. But it was something else, something off-screen, that piqued my interest the most.
“When I was young, I had business plans for a spa and a home decor store and all these things. I still have them, I saved them—like, the layout of the spa I designed. They're fun to look back on,” she tells me. These saved plans—quite literally—are the blueprints that show the foundations of Bouchard’s entrepreneurial spirit.
As if it were the ink that marked the pages of a young Bouchard’s dream businesses, entrepreneurship runs in the blood of her family. “I always wanted to have my own business. My parents are entrepreneurs, all four of them,” she quips, revealing that not only are her biological parents entrepreneurs, but they have since remarried other entrepreneurs. Bouchard’s stepmom is an interior designer, her dad owned an architectural woodworking company. Mom and stepdad own a glass company. Even going a generation back, entrepreneurial outputs exist. Bouchard’s grandparents? Members of the non-profit SOS Children’s Village BC’s founding team.
“They're just such an amazing support [team]. And it's been a really cool adventure sharing this with them,” Bouchard smiles.
The latest in the family tree of ventures for Bouchard's kin is Loba, a marriage of hardware and software in which an aesthetically-designed pillbox connects to a free app. Within the app, users can manage their medication schedule, set reminders, add their pills or log when they take them. The Loba base will signal you, also, alerting users through an LED glow when medications need to be taken or restocked.
For Bouchard, it’s a culmination. “I feel like Loba is the bringing together of all my various experiences and interests in an intense and wonderful way,” she shares.
Those experiences start in Victoria where she was born and Richmond where she was raised. After high school, Bouchard attended Langara College. Right when her diploma was printed—business management—she entered the corporate world, working for an international helicopter company. An executive assistant, she was constantly rubbing shoulders with the company’s c-suite, further fueling those entrepreneurial ambitions. When Langara started offering bachelor programs, not just diplomas, Bouchard re-enrolled.
Armed with a BBA in marketing management, she started working for marketing agencies. Social media was taking off, website development was en vogue. Bouchard soaked it all up like a sponge. Wanting more experience with clients, she moved to Doctors of BC, foreshadowing her healthtech future. Then, four years ago, Bouchard left the corporate world and started her journey as an entrepreneur. She founded Armature Collective, her own marketing firm and opening salvo into entrepreneurship.
“I feel like I've learned so much from running a marketing and branding company. I don't think I would have made the leap with something like Loba—a hardware tech company in the health space where the risks are so much higher, the investment is so much more—without having done that step first,” she shares.
Bouchard saw a gap in the market from her own personal experiences with taking supplements, seeing naturopaths, being on medication and generally caring for herself and her wellness. “There was a problem I had that I couldn't find a product to solve,” she explains. At the time, Armature was up and running. She was happy with her team (“wonderful”) and she felt strongly about the client base (“amazing”). Still, nothing had been made that met the healthtech needs Bouchard had. With Amature basically in cruise control, Bouchard set her sights on Loba. She was ready to make that leap.
Bouchard, at the encouragement of a mentor, explored the initial idea for what would become Loba. The mentor also introduced her to other people in the space. These conversations, Bouchard shared, lit a fire within her to get the idea on paper. One small problem: Bouchard had never designed a product before, and sketching out the hardware side of things had her feeling out of her depth. So, Bouchard reached for a lifeline. She phoned a friend.
“I'm artistic, but I'm not good at drawing. I’m much more abstract in my creative process. I took my initial drawings to a girlfriend of mine, an architect by training, and a furniture designer for Article, here in Vancouver. She helped me with getting what I created to the next level—exploring materials, creating some renderings, some wireframes. So I could actually meet with people and explain my idea better than my fourth-grade-level sketches,” she laughs.
Bouchard then realized that the next step would be actually hiring a product design development firm, citing the old adage that you want to hire smarter people than yourself. She worked with a freelance engineer to develop an RFP for the industrial and electronics design. That freelancer also helped her out on the app side of things, with Bouchard pinch-hitting a few times using her experience building websites at past jobs. She ended up hiring IaconicDesign, a Burnaby-based firm that took over the industrial design, electronics design and app development.
Through Loba, Bouchard will be working with Iaconic through the manufacturing process and is aiming for an April launch of the app. Manufacturing was also quite the learning curve for Bouchard, she told me. She quipped that she happily bit off way more than she ever chewed before. “I never thought I would know as much as I do now about injection molding and PCBs and supply chains and the chip shortage,” she jokes.
The company hoped to manufacture locally but couldn’t find the right fit. Unfortunately, for startups with low volume, Bouchard argues, it's pretty much impossible to build hardware in your own backyard, “unless you have tons and tons and tons of money to be able to do an initial run. A lot of manufacturers here wouldn't even look at us. Or they have an initial conversation, and then—unless you're doing hundreds of thousands of units at once—it's not going to work. So we did end up partnering with an overseas manufacturer who was just much more open to smaller initial runs.”
I was curious how Loba compared to similar entities. A cursory Google search for “smart pillbox” revealed a few, with sellers ranging from gadget standby Best Buy to the knockoff proprietor AliExpress. Bouchard laid out a pair of differences from what’s already out there. The first is the targeted demographic of a Loba user. Bouchard points out that Loba’s focus is on the younger, tech-literate side. This demographic tends to seek investments into their physical and mental wellbeing and Loba wants to meet them there. Bouchard touts a proactive piece—hoping Loba’s customers use it to establish healthy habits—as integral to Loba’s mission.
“Some of the other ones that you would have come across are a little bit more compliance-based,” she explains. “They’re targeted more towards elderly people, or seniors taking pills. We're focused more around creating healthy habits and changing the sentiments of taking pills and supplements from making it feel like, ‘Oh, something's wrong with me, I'm sick,’ to, ‘I'm bettering myself and I'm taking care of myself.’”
The second difference for Loba is the vibe. The hardware’s energy resembles that of a diffuser, a device that emanates chicness as well as self-care steam, powered by essential oils. Bouchard cited her diffuser as inspiration for the design and functionality of Loba’s hardware, speaking fondly of a morning ritual that also includes the brewing of her morning coffee.
“I can truly say that we're the first smart pill organizer that's beautiful, that you'll be proud to have on your counter, that is supposed to complement and enhance your space. We have a real wood veneer on the outside, we have this beautiful LED light that glows underneath as well as in the front to act as a visual cue of when to take your pills. I was really inspired by daily rituals. I want to tap into that feeling of taking pleasure in doing something like this for yourself,” she continues.
So far, the company is picking up traction. Pre-sales opened in November and Bouchard has watched them trickle in through the online store. Partnerships are starting to form. Last week, she saw the first prototypes of the hardware. Next up is the estimated April launch of the Loba app and landing the hardware on countertops everywhere—in plain sight, of course. It’s all making Bouchard feel a little aspirational.
“I'm really excited about getting the product delivered to our first initial customers, getting their feedback, and seeing how we can grow and scale as a company. I really want to utilize technology to improve people's lives and their wellness. Technology is a part of our life for better or for worse. My hope with Loba is that we're part of the better.”
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