ROCHESTER — For Allisa Song, a few microliters makes a world of difference.

The 29-year-old started Nanodropper, an award-winning company that provides adaptive tops for eyedrop bottles, a solution to the wasteful bottles that she says are the norm in the industry.

The devices help cut down drops to 7 to 10 microliters, about one-fifth of the typical dose, so that patients get more out of their medication and don’t experience the side effects of ingesting too much.

Song graduated from the University of Washington in 2015 with degrees in psychology and biology, and spent a few years working in a research lab. In 2017, she and her partner, Elias Baker, started developing Nanodropper. The following year, Song decided to pursue a degree in medicine, moving to Rochester to attend the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine.

In 2021, Nanodropper took home the top prize of $50,000 at Minnesota’s most popular business competition, the MN Cup. The firm made it to the semifinalist level by winning the student division.

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In the contest's 16 years, Nanodropper is the first company from the student division to win the grand prize. The $50,000 prize is in addition to the $25,000 Nanodropper was awarded for winning the student category.

When Song and Baker founded the company, they saw it as an opportunity to address inequities in the health care system and deliver more effective eye care, noticing that people were paying for drops that were largely wasted.

Now, they’re on a mission to empower patients and support ophthalmologists.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you choose to get into the eye device space?

It started from when I ran across a ProPublica article. (Reporter Marshall Allen) told a really great story about how ophthalmologists, drug companies, anyone who's involved in eye care, knows that the human eye has a certain capacity to only hold so much. These eye drops that are commercially available are way, way bigger than that.

These drops were like, five times the capacity of the human eye.

What is detrimental about having too large of drops?

This is the eye-drop bottle adapter developed by Rochester's Nanodropper start-up.
This is the eye-drop bottle adapter developed by Rochester's Nanodropper start-up. Contributed

What really got to me was the literature, the science, was very clear. There were numerous studies dating back to the '80s looking at the efficacy of smaller droplets being just as efficacious as the larger ones.

Actually, it causes less local and systemic side effects, because a smaller drop means there's less everywhere around your eye that’s not really meant to be the target. Then it elicits a bigger reflex from your body. So you tear up more, you drain more, and you blink more.

What happens when you drain something out of your eye, is it goes basically into the back of your throat, and you end up swallowing it. It’s as if you're taking these medications by mouth.

Some of these medications are things like beta blockers, which can be really detrimental to your health if you have pre-existing conditions. All of these problems were very well documented through clinical trials.

That kind of inspired me to think about a solution where we could bring some of this control back to the patient.

What feedback have you received from the eye care community?

A lot of ophthalmologists knew about this problem for a while, and even if they hadn’t learned it in school, they experienced it in the clinic.

The way that it presents in the clinic is like, the patient was prescribed this medication, they ran out of their drops before insurance will cover it for the next month, so they miss the last week out of four weeks. And this is like a repetitive thing that goes on, and then their outcomes aren’t as good because they can't adhere to the medication.

It’s just a really frustrating system to practice in, I can imagine. So some ophthalmologists sent us messages when we were first starting out with this idea and a dream before we made a functional working product that we could offer.

They were like, “Hey, I thought about something like this back in the day. I got so busy in my practice. I'm so glad that someone's finally making something like this.” We've heard so many stories like that.

I think that's one of the reasons why we had a really smooth trajectory in making partnerships with smaller eye care clinics … People are really passionate about this, because they’ve been wanting a solution for some time now.

What has it been like working with your partner?

It's really cool to be able to work together. And I feel like our synergy and ability to bounce ideas off each other and refine them in real time while we're just having dinner, that kind of thing, you just can’t get in any other dynamic — maybe if we were related or best friends.

It brings a level of honesty that you maybe couldn’t get if you were just developing a company with professional colleagues. It also feels very real from the beginning. Because this is our life.