Lewis Hornby (MSc Innovation Design Engineering 2018) is the founder of Jelly Drops, offering a unique solution to dehydration in dementia sufferers.

Photography: Hannah Maule-Ffinch

Dehydration is one of the ‘hidden’ dangers of dementia and it can be  life-threatening. Making sure people with dementia drink enough  water is difficult, something I’ve seen first-hand with my grandmother.

Many with dementia don’t feel thirst, or might not associate being thirsty with needing to drink. They may not even recognise what cups are for, or struggle to grip them properly. It’s a big problem – and because dehydration reduces cognitive ability, it also makes it more difficult to eat or communicate.

Lewis Hornby in the lab
A drop in the ocean: Lewis Hornby is working flat out to meet the demand for his Jelly Drops.

A couple of years ago, my grandma, who has dementia, was admitted to hospital – doctors told my family and me to expect the worst. However, after 24 hours on IV fluid she was back to her normal self. It turned out that she’d just been dehydrated. I was shocked that something so simple could have such a huge effect on her health.

I decided that my graduation project would be a great opportunity to try to help Grandma and others like her. I started by living in her care home for a month.

I quickly realised that while many struggle to drink, they all loved sweets! After some experimentation on how to get as much water into a tasty treat as possible, I came up with Jelly Drops. They’re sugar-free sweets that are 95 per cent water, with added electrolytes. When I first offered them to my grandma, she ate seven in 10 minutes – that’s the equivalent of drinking a glass of water, which would usually take hours and require much more assistance.

There’s huge demand for the product – a video of my grandma eating them went viral and led to a lot of media coverage. What people seem to like about Jelly Drops is that they don’t carry the same stigma as some other products designed for people with dementia, which can be medicinal or infantilising.

My time at Imperial was fundamental to the project. They definitely push you to make ideas a reality, and give you the tools you need to start a business. Since graduating, I’ve been working on making a scalable commercial product alongside my former coursemates, Nick Hooton and Claudia Arnold. That’s probably the biggest benefit of the course, meeting like-minded people who are willing to take a punt on an idea. It can be a bit overwhelming at times, but having a team means you’re not trying to work it all out on your own.

When we started, we applied everything we’d learned from the Imperial Enterprise Lab about how to pitch and get investors on board. After graduation, we joined the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service, which means we have two great alumni advisors who are always available on email or at the end of the phone. We also received a Research Innovator grant from the Alzheimer’s Society, which was a massive boost and helped us to finish our first factory ahead of the launch.

The potential for Jelly Drops is huge. The product can not only help the 850,000 people in the UK with dementia, but we’ve also had interest from many others, such as people with Parkinson’s disease going through chemotherapy. The demand is also international, with about half of the 40,000 people on our waiting list coming from America. The plan for this year is to keep scaling up production to meet current demand and get into new markets as soon as possible.

Find out more about Jelly Drops.