Bright Simons is empowering consumers to protect their health using simple and user-friendly technology to instantly authenticate and the safety of pharmaceuticals at point of purchase. In doing so, he is building a win-win coalition engaging and educating manufacturers, regulatory agencies and consumers.
The New Idea
Bright is improving the safety of pharmaceutical consumers by providing a way for them to identify fake drugs with the first system anywhere in the world by which consumers and patients can instantly verify the source of a purchased pharmaceutical at no cost, right at the point of purchase, using standard mobile phones and SMS messaging.
Bright has created a system for consumers of pharmaceuticals to enable them to confirm the source and quality of drugs they purchase. By simply sending a code embossed on the body of the product in a regular SMS to a dedicated access number, purchasers receive a real time response authenticating the product. His system provides a live, dynamic link between the consumer and the manufacturer. This idea is set to make communication between the buyer and manufacturer a point of purchase routine. The implications for quality assurance, advertising, consumer relations, and customer service are ground-breaking.
Consumers are usually passive participants in efforts to protect them from counterfeit drugs. Bright realized that in developing regions, literacy and low technical capacity limit the efficiency of existing consumer targeted controls such as holograms and bar codes. A simple user friendly system could be used instead by consumers and drug sellers. At the same time he realized the value of getting participating manufacturers and other stakeholders to voluntarily come on board and built a broad coalition to create value for everyone. Pharmaceuticals associations, regulatory agencies and sellers all have a tangible value and benefit in the system, ensuring its sustainability.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers protect their brands and their market share, regulatory agencies fulfill their mandates, shop keepers protect themselves from the liability of counterfeit drugs, and consumers take an active role in protecting themselves from the dangers of counterfeit drugs in an empowering way that helps them reduce their dependency on a paternalistic government. Bright’s platform uses a national four digit number that is easy to recognize, memorize and use and is cost-free to the consumer and the public sector while providing manufacturers a low-cost high-impact marketing platform.
Counterfeit or substandard drugs pose serious health risks to consumers. They are believed to be responsible for 20 percent of malaria deaths and viewed as contributing factors to the growing problem of drug resistance. At least 300 to 500 million malaria episodes are treated annually in sub Saharan Africa and between 675,000 and one million children die from malaria annually. Counterfeiting also violates copyright laws and is therefore a crime.
Effective Medicine Regulatory Authorities (MRA) are crucial to the development of a reliable health system, yet in the developing world are one of the weakest components of efforts to provide safe healthcare delivery. Inefficiency, lack of trained human resources, capital and technical limitations and corruption all have a direct negative impact on these efforts. Meanwhile, placing sole responsibility on governments to regulate drugs and pharmaceuticals disempowers consumers and encourages a paternalistic type of government that leads to dependency and consumer apathy.
In 2000, an Interpol survey of major pharmacies in Lagos, Nigeria, discovered that 80 percent of the medications for sale were placebos. This rate is considerably higher than the World Health Organization’s data suggesting up to 30 percent of the medicines sold across the developing world are counterfeit or sub-standard compared to only one percent in developed countries. Counterfeiting is a $75 billion global industry that resists efforts by MRAs working to protect public health. The head of Nigeria’s food and drug agency, one of the most vibrant in the sub Saharan region, has escaped a number of assassination attempts by sophisticated counterfeiting cartels.
Ensuring drug quality requires on-going assessment mechanisms down the pharmaceutical supply chain. Traditional methods usually stop at the point of final sellers and do not include the consumer as an active participant in the process. Traditional security features such as 2D holograms, which can be perfectly replicated by even smalltime counterfeit operators, require that the consumer recognizes the holographic identity of a variety of drugs. Optically variable holographic devices require a high literacy rate among consumers and have limited use in the developing world. Newer technology such as bio molecular markers are more difficult to counterfeit but expensive, technology dependent or requiring large public or private capital investments.
In 2003, Bright’s work as a citizen journalist took him to the U.K, where he started an organization to market organic produce from Ghana. In order to maintain quality standards among a group of small scale farmers, he researched a number of verification options utilizing new technology. After extensive work, he realized that an SMS based system was the most appropriate due to its low cost, high access and the rapid growth of affordable GSM telephone in the region. With help from an engineering team, he designed an appropriate verification system to use SMS messages to authenticate codes, enabling buyers to track producers and produce standards.
Logistics and poor stakeholder engagement stalled the implementation of the project in Ghana. Around the same time he received a study fellowship in Sino-African studies and became aware of the growing trade in counterfeit goods between China and Africa, as well as the tragic impact of counterfeit drugs. He quickly realized the model developed for verifying agricultural produce could be applied to pharmaceuticals. Reflecting on the obstacles he had encountered when trying to introduce his model to agriculture, he recognized the importance of stakeholder relationships. He refined his model with an intensive relationship component called ‘stakeholder interfacing’ and secured start-up funding for a pilot.
In September 2007, Bright returned to Ghana and started the first phase of his project with a comprehensive stakeholder map. He registered a citizen organization called mPedigree to implement his idea. He engaged the Ghanaian Ministries of Trade and Industry, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ghana, the Consumer Association of Ghana and major media houses (including the national broadcaster) with the intention of using them to reach as many people as possible. He convinced the four major GSM telephone providers to designate a single, universal, access number (1393) to mPedigree, discount the SMS charges by 80 percent and charge the manufacturers at a premium of 10 percent to fund his operations.
His engagement model gives all stakeholders an interest in the project’s success. GSM telephone providers look forward to increased uptake on their under-utilized SMS platform. Manufacturers track sales and purchase trends, and use the response SMS to market their other products. In addition, they meet regulatory requirements and protect their market share. The government regulators support an end user-enabled mechanism to secure the drug supply chain without any financial investment. They also benefit from free, privileged, access to the technology to enable field enforcers gather intelligence about counterfeiting as well as respond promptly and effectively to evidence of counterfeit activity. Consumers receive a free, widely available and accessible system to verify the source and authenticity of the drugs they purchase. Because drugs can be traced back to manufacturers, they can also be held accountable by consumers if the products do not meet standards.
Bright received a grant to finance a pilot to test the technology and identify consumer attitudes. His organization administered a questionnaire to 2,000 respondents and then ran a technology test in ten retail pharmacies in Accra’s main market. They spent an additional three months studying and refining the operational logistics. The School of Public Health in Ghana, a recently engaged partner, will analyze data from the report. A second pilot and multi-site test of the technology is planned for December 2008. Presently, the inter switch technology is based in Dartmouth, England. Once the final tests are complete, Bright will raise capital to finance its transportation and installation in Accra.
Bright previously registered a limited liability company, Xignet, to receive and manage venture capital sourced on competitive terms. He calls his business model a hybridized structure—a social enterprise and public-private partnership—with foundation grants going directly to mPedigree, and equity investment channeled through the fully-private entity, XigNet. He expects that market intelligence and advertising prospects will constitute 55 percent of revenues by year five, some coming from a second platform (the 1323 pipe) dedicated to SMS-promotions and mobile-based brand marketing. mPedigree is directed by a local advisory board made up of major stakeholders.
Bright expects to achieve universal rural and urban recognition for the mPedigree system in Ghana within three years, with at least 50 percent of all local manufacturers signed on. He will then expand into the Nigerian and East African markets by leveraging the presence of his telecom partners in those regions. Although he attempted to register a patent, Bright decided he wants the technology to remain open source. He will instead work with local partners in each country where mPedigree expands to ensure the cost is not passed onto the end users and that the system continues to empower them. Local advisory boards will direct operations in each country.
Bright grew up with two entrepreneurial parents who made a decent living for themselves during the Ghana economic reconstruction era of the 1980s and 1990s. Bright learned early the value of the entrepreneurial skills he saw. After a health crisis in high school, he came to a realization of the bigger world around him and he dedicated himself in recovery to deploying his skills to empower the people around him.
He received a fellowship that took him to Europe to study astrophysics but learned quickly that the field offered him little opportunity to render the sort of change that he wanted to bring to the world and to the people of his native Ghana. After changing his major he started discussions with his fellow Ghanaians on Diaspora and what they could do to improve their country in an entrepreneurial and sustainable way.
These discussions led to the development of his first idea to increase farmers’ capacity to earn more by opening up new markets for them. The plan was to make them suppliers of organic produce to big supermarket chains across U.K. and then Europe. The research they did on maintaining standards eventually led the group to develop an SMS based system for identifying and certifying farm produce from a number of small holder farmers. Bright later adapted this system for mPedigree.