By Richard Silberman, Writer/Researcher, IBM Communications
For Ashifi Gogo, commercial success and social benefit are inextricably linked. In launching his cell phone-based drug authentication service, Sproxil, in emerging markets, Gogo saw great opportunity to combat a major problem and make a real difference. He also saw a great business opportunity.
“I had long been upset by the lack of global start-ups with solutions that make an impact in developing nations,” Gogo said. “With our technology, we had an opportunity to operate in emerging markets and solve a critical social problem while doing well commercially. For me, the two sides have always been self-combined.”
Gogo learned about the counterfeit drug epidemic in West Africa while a graduate student at Dartmouth College, where he developed his technology and ultimately started Sproxil. The death of 84 infants in Nigeria from tainted teething syrup in 2009 drove home the need for action — and Gogo took on the challenge.
He launched with Sproxil’s first client in February, 2010 to empower Nigerians to avoid fake drugs, help the government fight counterfeiting and help legitimate drug makers regain market share.
Scratch cards vs. starting from scratch
Sproxil’s Mobile Product Authentication (MPA™) solution lets customers scratch-and-text an item-unique code off a drug label to get an instant text response telling them whether the drug is real or fake. If it’s indicated as fake, the consumer knows not to use it (thereby potentially saving his or her life) and is instructed how to report the counterfeit medicine to the proper authorities.
In creating Sproxil, Gogo leveraged the nearly ubiquitous use of mobile phones and scratch cards across the developing world.
“It’s much better than starting from scratch because in that case you’d have to educate hundreds of millions of people how to use the service,” Gogo said. “With scratch labels, consumers know exactly what to do when they see our labels.”
To date, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and Merck’s distributor all employ the Sproxil service in Nigeria — and over 400,000 consumers have sent in texts to verify drug authenticity.
Eventually, Sproxil may be applied as an anti-counterfeiting solution for other products, such as luxury goods. But drugs make a much better starting point, Gogo said. ”People can die when they take fake drugs, but people rarely die when they wear fake jewelry,” he said.
A life-changing decision
Gogo’s work in Nigeria is not far from Ghana — the country where he was born and, as a teenager, made a key decision that helped get him where he is today.
Just as he finished high school, a strike by university professors created a backlog of incoming students and meant Gogo would have to wait two years until he could apply to college in Ghana.
“I was just sitting at home one day and a couple of friends said there’s this [U.S. college admissions] test called the SAT, why don’t we go take this exam,” Gogo said. “So I tagged along and got pretty decent scores.”
Gogo received a full scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington followed by full scholarships to Dartmouth for his masters degree and Ph.D. At Dartmouth, Gogo was a fellow in the engineering school’s Ph.D Innovation Program, where he gained entrepreneurial skills to help see his solution through to the marketplace.
Some advice for social entrepreneurs
Gogo and Sproxil have received a great deal of recognition, including a grant from the Clinton Global Initiative. After proving itself in Nigeria, Sproxil has raised $1.8 million from socially-minded venture capital firm Acumen Fund in New York. Boosted by venture capital, Sproxil has begun operations in three new countries: Kenya, Ghana and India, and has already closed deals with multiple Indian pharmaceutical companies.
Video: Countering Drug Counterfeiters with Small Resources that Produce Big Results
Video description: Ashifi Gogo, CEO of Sproxil explains how his company uses simple text messaging technology to help consumers avoid buying counterfeit drugs while providing pharmaceutical companies with crucial data on growth markets.
As Gogo broadens Sproxil’s reach, driven by his humanitarian and commercial goals, he is realizing a new model that successfully delivers both societal and business value. Gogo hopes this model will one day be embraced widely, and has some insights to offer other social entrepreneurs:
“One thing I’ve learned is that many countries are increasingly seeing the value in having frank business discussions and collaborating to solve problems,” Gogo said. “So it’s important to go into new countries with an open mind and largely wave away stereotypes so you can unlock people’s potential to collaborate and do business.”
Gogo also urges entrepreneurs to consider the intersection of technology and people. “That’s where the magic happens,” he said.
“Even in low electricity environments, people understand technology in some very interesting ways,” Gogo said. “Don’t focus too much on the sexy aspect of the technology, but actually understand why people want to use certain technologies. Then, work from there to really provide solutions that have value and answer their needs.”
Sproxil provides software and services that capture market intelligence and help protect consumers in emerging markets via cell phones. Currently the company is focused on deploying its key offering, Mobile Product Authentication (MPA™), to combat the widespread presence of counterfeit drugs. The MPA solution lets customers scratch-and-text an item-unique code off a drug label to get an instant response telling them whether the drug is real or fake. This technology helps consumers avoid buying counterfeit drugs and can save lives. Sproxil was a finalist in IBM’s 2010 SmartCamp competition, which identifies and mentors early-stage entrepreneurs aligned with IBM’s Smarter Planet vision.