Lewis Hornby was undertaking his Masters in Innovation Design Engineering in London in 2018 when his grandma, who had dementia, was taken to hospital after becoming very ill and unresponsive.
"She had become completely unresponsive and the family was pretty much told to expect the worst. Yet, after just 24 hours on an IV she felt back to her normal self. It shocked me to realise the struggle that so many elderly people must have with dehydration and how easily the symptoms are put down to dementia.
“Something as simple as staying hydrated can improve a person’s quality of life so much. It can take them from being confused and dazed and not wanting to get out of bed, to getting up, walking around their home, and interacting with others.
“After researching a little more, I discovered that as little as a 2% reduction in hydration can reduce cognitive efficacy by as much as 10%.”
Given that his Masters gave him the time to innovate in whatever area he was passionate about, Hornby, who was 24-years-old at the time, decided to spend every day at his grandma's care home while he deliberated over how he could engineer a solution to the issue.
During the next four weeks he realised the main difficulties with encouraging the residents to drink. They often didn’t recognise if they were thirsty, they found cups difficult to handle without spilling, and they often refused help from carers.
“On the other hand, if I were to walk through the corridor with a box of chocolates or sweets, they would all perk up and become interested in what I was handing out. Not only would they be more than happy to take one or two but they’d start talking too. I realised this was the format I needed to use.”
Hornby, now 26, spoke to doctors, dietitians and other experts to help him develop his idea for his brightly coloured, fruity flavoured, pear drop shaped ‘sweets’ which he created in his student kitchen. Each drop provides over 90% water, with gelling agents and electrolytes added to improve hydration and ease of use.
“I’m not exactly a culinary genius, in fact I can barely poach an egg, but I set about creating a firm jelly you can easily get a handle on, made with mostly water, no sugar, natural colours and flavours, and added electrolytes.”
He created the product, Jelly Drops, with its handy chocolate box style tray, and tested it on his grandma for the first time, with huge success.
“The first time she had ever seen the drops she quickly understood and took one from the tray then passed it round, but it wasn’t long before she was asking for another, and another. Within 10 minutes she had consumed seven of the drops - equivalent to a glass of water - something that would have taken hours to encourage with a cup.”
He didn't have huge plans for his innovation at that time but submitted a video of his grandma enjoying the drops to an engineering competition, just to see if anything came of it.
“I actually forgot all about the competition and was travelling in Ukraine when I started getting loads of emails from people around the world asking me if they could buy these drops.
“It turned out the videos sent in to the competition had been put online and mine had gotten thousands of views. I started getting calls from BBC and Sky News asking to interview me about my idea. I was even invited to do a Ted X talk in California which I did in 2019, and called it ‘Designing for Dementia’.”
By the time Hornby was giving his Ted X talk, he had more than 1,000 care homes on the waiting list to buy his drops. And just 18 after conception, in July 2020, he announced the company's commercial launch in the UK. Since then, he’s sold 1.2million drops (50,000 trays) online and he hopes to expand across Europe and into the US in 2021, as his mailing list already consists of 35,000 recipients in the US.
The entrepreneurial star was also announced as the winner of the Innovation Award 2020 at the National Dementia Care Awards in November.
The drops come in six flavours, they are vegan and made to be easy to chew even for those without teeth. Next, the entrepreneur is working to design drops specifically for people who have difficulty swallowing.
But that’s certainly not where his opportunities for innovation end.
“The possibilities are endless. This is a delivery system so it can be used to deliver any nutrients that a person needs and avoid the need for pills. One particularly prevalent and well-known issue amongst nursing home residents is vitamin D deficiency and the drops could be an ideal delivery format for that.”