Helping the poor is far from the easiest way to make money, but 28-year old Nathan Sigworth has found a way to make it pay.
He’s the CEO and co-founder of PharmaSecure, a start-up that helps drug companies combat counterfeit medication in the developing world. Dually headquartered in Lebanon, New Hampshire and Gurgaon, India, PharmaSecure partners with pharmaceutical companies throughout India to print serial numbers on drug bottles. Consumers can then text that code to a phone number also printed on the bottle and verify that the medication is authentic. This prevents drug companies from losing precious market share; PharmaSecure’s software also provides them with valuable information on their customers. That means drug companies are willing to pay a premium for the service.
"We get to solve two problems at once," says Sigworth. "We can help companies optimize their sales by understanding consumer behavior, while at the same time, addressing major public health issues."
A Platform, Not Just a Verification Tool
Sigworth first started researching the counterfeit market in 2005, after spending a summer volunteering at a hospital in Uttar Pradesh, India. At the time, mobile authentication services were nothing new, but Sigworth believed they could be better. He wanted to do more than just put an end to counterfeiting, and instead build a platform that would facilitate a dialogue between healthcare providers and patients, many of whom live hours from the nearest hospital. Thanks to the spread of mobile technology in the developing world (according to Census data, mobile phones are more common in India than toilets) doctors and rural patients can connect in the click of a button. Authenticating medication is simply a way to jumpstart the conversation.
In November 2007, Sigworth and his co-founder, fellow Dartmouth student Taylor Thompson, founded PharmaSecure. Sigworth moved to New Delhi to work on landing clients, but quickly found that breaking into the business wasn't going to be easy. Not only did he have to convince multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical companies to let a recent college graduate tamper with their manufacturing processes, he had to do it in another country. It took about a year to land his first customer.
"Looking back, it's amazing we kept going," Sigworth says, adding that his family had invested seed capital. "I guess I just figured I could never show up at a family party again if I didn’t give it my best shot."
Passing the 200 Million Mark
Since then, PharmaSecure has landed seven major pharmaceutical companies in India as clients and raised $6 million in funding from various angel and VC groups, including Gray Ghost Ventures and Tech Coast Angels. This year, the company’s codes will be printed on more than 200 million packages throughout India. That’s more than double last year’s number. And in June, PharmaSecure will also begin adding a series of apps to its platform that will allow consumers to get health tips and even talk to qualified doctors on the phone for free.
Thompson left Pharmasecure in 2010 to attend Harvard Business School. The fast growth has kept the company's remaining founder busy. "For someone in his 20s, my social life is probably pretty lame," Sigworth says, laughing, but he says he won't stop until Pharmasecure's codes cover medications across India and the rest of the developing world.