In Africa, the counterfeit drug trade is a $30 billion operation. As pharmaceutical sales have grown the past few decades, suppliers have begun to flood markets with cheap fake drugs–which may contain improper doses, incorrect or entirely absent active ingredients, or may have been stored in substandard conditions and expired. Drawn by lower prices, pharmacists often purchase and sell substandard drugs without knowing their origin or contents. Around one in every 10 drugs sold in the developing world is counterfeit.
The human toll of this illicit market is staggering. The World Health Organization estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa, between 64,000 and 154,000 people die per year from taking fake anti-malaria medications, and other counterfeit drugs claim thousands more lives.
Adebayo Alonge’s was nearly one of them. Over 15 years ago, as a student in Nigeria, he suffered a severe asthma attack. At the hospital, he was given Ventolin, a medication which should have helped him breathe, but instead, because it was counterfeit, put him in a coma for three weeks. He survived, “but this was the specific experience that stayed with me–it was clear that my life could’ve been ended by a drug that wasn’t what it was supposed to be,” Alonge tells Fast Company. At the time, he was top of his class at school in Nigeria and on track to become a doctor, but he decided to switch his focus to pharmaceuticals to understand more about the industry and how to fix it. He went on to study business with a focus on pharmacy at Yale, where he met Amy Kao and Wei Liu, with whom he would launch a startup two years ago to tackle the counterfeit drug epidemic that nearly ended his life.
Called RxAll, the company uses artificial intelligence to verify the legitimacy of medicines on the market. To do so, RxAll designed and built–with the help of data scientists at Yale–a handheld authenticator that analyzes the particular infrared wavelength that a drug emits. Each drug has its own unique “spectral fingerprint” that indicates which chemical compounds are present, and at which quantities; that’s what the device, called a nanoscanner, can pick up on. Quality authentication via this type of technology has been in development in the sciences for several years–Alonge worked with a very large scanner in his final year of undergraduate school in Nigeria in 2008. But RxAll wanted to make it more accessible, and developed a smaller version that costs just $1,000, compared to the standard $20,000, bulkier version. Alonge compares what RxAll has done with scanners to how phones developed from large, wire-connected contraptions to the mobile versions we all use now.
Along with the nanoscanner, the RxAll team also created database that contains the spectral profile of hundreds of drugs. With the handheld nanoscanner, anyone can scan a drug to detect its chemical makeup and feed that data into RxAll’s cloud-based platform. The algorithm embedded in the platform analyzes the drug’s spectral profile and cross-checks it against what the profile should read for the legitimate version of the drug. Once the algorithm has determined if the drug is real or fake–a process that takes just around 20 seconds–it sends a reading to the RxAll app. According to the company, their nanoscanner works at a 96.7% accuracy rate.
So far, RxAll has deployed around 70 devices to the food and drug administration agencies of five countries in Africa, as well as 200 pharmacies across Nigeria and Kenya, where they’ve detected and prevented the sale of over 60,000 substandard drugs. Eventually, they want to scale to the point where every pharmacy can have a device on hand. Right now, RxAll is making money by selling devices to pharmacies and agencies, and data on fake drugs to pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Sanofi, who have a business interest in stopping the market for fake drugs. But eventually, the hope is to make enough revenue off the data to be able to provide nanoscanners to pharmacies that couldn’t otherwise afford them.
Even though the company is relatively new, it’s garnering attention for its straightforward approach to tackling a global problem. RxAll recently won the Global Challenge prize hosted by Hello Tomorrow, a French nonprofit that supports emerging technology. “We evaluate our Challenge finalists on four factors–innovation, economic viability, team, and environmental/social impact–and RxAll excels in every category,” says Hello Tomorrow co-founder and co-managing director Arnaud de la Tour. RxAll has also received funding from Yale and the Nigerian government, as well as support from the Katapult Accelerator in Norway. RxAll was initially incorporated in Nigeria, Alonge says, but the funding and scientific support from Yale brought the company to its new headquarters in New Haven.
Even though RxAll first launched in Africa, its solution to the counterfeit drug crisis is by no means limited to that continent. Already, a pharmacy franchise in Myanmar has purchased the device and is using it to verify drug authenticity in the city of Yangon, and Alonge says interest is growing across Southeast Asia, where counterfeit drugs also claim thousands of lives.