Health IT

How one startup is fighting counterfeit drugs in developing countries — one cellphone at a time

The story of mobile health startup PharmaSecure begins with two college roommates, some time in the mid-2000s. Nathan Sigworth had spent a summer volunteering at a hospital in India. His roommate at Dartmouth, Taylor Thompson, had done work in public health in Africa. In conversations between themselves and their peers, they observed that a lot […]

The story of mobile health startup PharmaSecure begins with two college roommates, some time in the mid-2000s. Nathan Sigworth had spent a summer volunteering at a hospital in India. His roommate at Dartmouth, Taylor Thompson, had done work in public health in Africa. In conversations between themselves and their peers, they observed that a lot of problems with access to healthcare in developing countries really boiled down to communication.

Another big problem with healthcare in these countries, they saw, was counterfeit drugs. India, the world’s largest manufacturer of generic drugs, is also home to a huge counterfeit drug industry. So is China. And drugs made there are sold across borders, wreaking havoc on populations that rely on drugs to control infectious diseases.

PharmaSecure’s co-founders came up with a solution that addressed both of those things — a platform that used SMS to verify the authenticity of drugs and connect pharmaceutical companies with consumers.

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A Deep-dive Into Specialty Pharma

A specialty drug is a class of prescription medications used to treat complex, chronic or rare medical conditions. Although this classification was originally intended to define the treatment of rare, also termed “orphan” diseases, affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the US, more recently, specialty drugs have emerged as the cornerstone of treatment for chronic and complex diseases such as cancer, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS.

There’s plenty of other anticounterfeit technology out there — RFID tagging and holograms, for example. But Sigworth said many of them aren’t affordable enough to be scaled up where they’re most needed. “Typically most were for expensive drugs in developing countries. But it turns out that a lot of the counterfeiting is of inexpensive drugs in developing countries,” he said. “We wanted to focus on how can we do it at scale and at a low per-unit cost get the technology into drugs that really mattered from a public health standpoint.”

The company was incorporated in 2007, and by the time it had refined its technology and was ready to approach pharmaceutical companies, the timing was right — at least in India. The Indian Government had just implemented policy requiring pharmaceutical companies to put barcodes on drugs they would ship to other countries, to allow for tracking and tracing. Simultaneously, the cellphone adoption in India was skyrocketing. “Almost everyone in third world countries has a cellphone, and they use it for a lot more fundamental things,” Sigworth said. “If you think about the computer infrastructure in the states, in emerging markets cellphones really takes that role.”

PharmaSecure works with pharmaceutical companies in India to print serial numbers on their drug bottles. When consumers get the medication, they can text that serial number to the number provided, and they’ll receive a text back letting them know that it’s authentic.

But for pharmaceutical companies, authenticating information is the conversation starter. The platform, in effect, opens the lines of communication for real dialogue with customers. For example, the pharmaceutical company might send a second message offering the consumer the opportunity to opt in to free health tips or refill reminders. Other PharmaSecure customers are healthcare companies who use the platform as a way to connect to patients who may want their services.

These companies are also finding the mobile platform to be a valuable research tool as well, Sigworth said, giving them insight into consumer habits and patient compliance.

Co-founder Thompson left the startup in 2010 to get his MBA, but the remaining co-founder and his team are doing just fine. PharmaSecure has raised at least $6 million in funding from Gray Ghost Ventures, Healthtech Capital, TEEC Angel Fund, Life Science Angels and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s fund, Innovation Endeavors.

Launched in 2012, PharmaSecure’s serial numbers are already being printed on half a billion packages in India. The company has also partnered with the International Criminal Police Organization, and the platform has just launched in Nigeria. Sigworth said there are plans to open up the service in other developing countries as well.

[Photo from Flickr user whiteafrican]