KENT-repreneur Episode 1: Alula

Justin Gleason and Ariella Yager, two of the KSU alumni who founded Alula.

Anna Huntsman

KENT-repreneur is a deep dive into business, tech and entrepreneurial efforts at Kent State. Host Anna Huntsman will take you on an exploration into innovation the first and third Thursdays of each month. The premiere episode focuses on Alula, a start-up run by alumni, which aims to use everyday technology to solve a health issue many women experience. Listen to “Episode 1: Alula” on Spreaker.

Alula, a start-up run by a Kent State alumni, aims to use everyday technology to solve a health issue many women experience.

In the Alula office space just outside of downtown Kent, two of Alula’s co-founders, Ariella Yager and Justin Gleason, talked about the project they’ve worked on for a little more than three years.

“We’ve been doing this since 2015,” Yager said. “Our start date on our LLC is 12-01-2015.”

Back then, Yager and Alula, along with their third co-founder, Samuel Graska, were undergraduate students at Kent State and were on a start-up called CaseMD. Their focus was a medical device phone case.

“Our first one was with EpiPens for children with allergies to make sure they have an EpiPen on them at all times,” Yager said. “Every single investor literally just looked at us and laughed at us because we (were) pitching a billion-dollar medical product, our biggest competitor (was) a billion-dollar (pharmaceutical) firm … and we’re college students with no experience asking them for money.”

Yager said the FDA approval process was difficult and expensive. She and Graska were passionate about this idea, but it didn’t seem feasible.

On one particularly cold day in Kent, that all changed.

“I walked into the (Undergraduate Student Government) office one day, and I was super upset because I left my birth control in my car. As a commuter student, my car was extremely far away, and it was also winter so there’s no way … I was going to get that,” Yager said. “The first thing Sam said was, ‘We should make it a case.’”

Yager and Graska decided to develop a phone case that would hold and dispense birth control pills. This product was less expensive than their other ideas, and because the case wouldn’t come with the pills, it did not need FDA approval.

“We call it the lowest-hanging fruit,” Yager said. “So what’s that product or service that you could launch the quickest with the least amount of resources … and that was this one.”

The two started to develop the case, but neither of them had experience in design. That’s how Gleason, who was then an architecture student, got involved.

Yager and Gleason had a class together, and she asked him to sit in on a conference call with a manufacturer and not speak, but write Graska and Yager advice on a piece of paper if the manufacturer asked questions about the design.

“I started writing things down on a piece of paper, like, ‘Say this,’ and ‘Do this,’ Gleason said, laughing at the memory.

After that, the three became business partners. Graska had a medical background from studying cellular and molecular biology; Yager was an entrepreneurship major with business experience and public speaking talents; and Gleason had the computer skills and design background to make a physical product.

Together, they created a prototype and named it Alula.

The name has several different meanings — first, Gleason said, it is feminine-sounding, as it ends with an “A.” It is spelled the same way forward and backward, which represents a menstrual cycle.

In addition, it is five letters, like the five petals on one of Alula’s design elements, a flower, signifying the tagline “forget-mew-not.” After the name was picked, the team realized the word is part of a bird’s wing that helps it fly, which further became part of the branding strategy.

Since the lightbulb first went off back in 2015, the product has dazzled judges at countless pitch competitions, sparked investments and grants for the team and lit the way for these three alumni in their early careers.

Not every single person they’ve encountered has been on board, though.

“They biggest hurdle we’ve had is to get people, to get investors, to believe in the idea … and the reason why I say that is because almost every person that is going to give you money is a white male,” Yager said.

“And that’s not a bad thing, but they don’t understand birth control. … We’ve even been to (competitions) and people come up to me after and these guys are like, ‘I just don’t get why it’s a problem.’”

Besides an unplanned pregnancy,  missing a birth control pill can lead to hormonal changes, mood swings and weight gain.

Yager and Gleason said they have consulted studies that show some women who take birth control are not sexually active and take the pill to decrease acne or menstrual pain. They said investors often think of birth control as only a contraceptive and don’t realize the health benefits  of it, which is what Alula is all about.

“Most women take (birth control) for acne and decreased pain so their hormones are level and they aren’t gaining weight and all these things,” Ariella said.

Gleason said when he works on the phone case, “the motivation I get is thinking about if a girl forgets her pill … it is messing with her cycle and her hormones … it is not a healthy lifestyle to forget to take it.”

Alula is not currently on the market, but the product is ready to be manufactured, which the team said should happen soon.

Alula has also become a lifestyle and women’s empowerment brand, Gleason said.

While all three team members have graduated from KSU and have other jobs, they hope to eventually make Alula and CaseMD their full-time jobs.

“If we can get Alula off the ground, then we can use Alula to help fund those other products that can help and change people’s lives,” Gleason said. 

You can follow Alula on Twitter

@myalula, and check out its website here.

Anna Huntsman is a podcast producer. Contact her at [email protected].

You can follow Alula on Twitter at @myalula, and check out its website here.

On the next episode of KENT-repreneur, we’ll explore how a KSU honors student wants to help high school students better understand Shakespeare — there’s an app for that. Listen Thursday, Feb. 7 on KentWired, and be sure to follow the podcast on Twitter at @KENT-repreneur.