Goodbye to the pharmacy line. Hello, drug-delivery dude.

A New York City-based company, co-founded by former ad exec and serial entrepreneur Stu Libby, is angling to get your prescriptions straight to your door. It is called Zipdrug, and it not only has an app (and a phone line for the app-averse), but it also has a messenger service that will bring the meds directly to you.

It's another small win in this decade's hype-laden, entrepreneur-led war on wasted time. And the latest move in which entrepreneurs chip away at life's little pain points.

Libby, who formerly co-founded a fast-growing company called Solve Media--it created ads out of sites' Captcha text boxes--says he himself had spent far too many hours waiting in pharmacy lines for his heartburn medications. And after a family member was hospitalized for a severe heart ailment, he realized the shortcomings of being counseled about the importance of taking prescribed medications: A hospital can't ensure any departing patient gets them into her hands. A little research taught him that one-third of all prescriptions go unfilled--and that increasing compliance is a big issue for doctors. So a year ago he set out to build Zipdrug.

Zipdrug aims to eliminate the pharmacy visit altogether, by automating prescription ordering through an app, and then deploying a drug-screened, background-checked, HIPAA-trained messenger to pick up and deliver prescriptions to the patient's home. On average, the delivery takes 16 minutes in Manhattan (by comparison, according to Libby, the average patient's wait time at a pharmacy is 45 minutes).  

The upstart, which has two other founders, Kyro Beshay and Webster Ross, is still finding its footing in New York. It recently moved into a new office near Penn Station, and is hiring rapidly after taking in $2.6 million in seed funding last November, from the likes of Red Sea Ventures and Notation Capital. On January 7, it is announcing a partnership with rapidly expanding New York drop-in clinic system CityMD; Zipdrug information and sign-up help will be available in some of CityMD's 52 locations early this year. Automated kiosks help patients sign up for Zipdrug after checking out from any participating clinic's visit.

The goal, of course, is for Zipdrug to find lots of potential new customers--and to integrate itself into a trusted system.

"I love CityMD, and go by one in my neighborhood all the time," says LIbby. "They really care about a streamlined, quality customer experience. Working with CityMD is also a great way to get to know New York. We are a new company--we didn't start to deliver until this summer--and our greatest challenge and goal is to meet many customers and show them how premium this experience is."

For CityMD, the Zipdrug partnership is a way to potentially improve its customer experience--and gain some control over what happens after a patient thanks the doctor and goes home. "All the touch points in our office, we can control and innovate," says Ned Shami, chief strategy officer at CityMD and one of the company's co-founders. "But something we've been looking at this year is, what happens when they leave our office?" CityMD was founded in 2010 by Richard Park along with Shami, and has grown over the past five years to more than 50 locations around the New York metropolitan area. Soon it will expand to the West Coast, starting with Seattle.

Delivery via Zipdrug is free for the first order, and $10 thereafter. Libby says that fee is likely to be offset by the fact that his company and delivery staff are savvy to discounts, coupons, and best prices for various drugs, and know to seek them out while the average patient may not.

Is the on-demand economy really ready to handle life-and-death medications? On the surface, Zipdrug may resemble a classic "what could go wrong?" startup pitch, and conjure up images of bike messengers skimming stimulants or muscle relaxants from granny's delivery. But Zipdrug says its contractors won't deliver certain controlled substances, including narcotics and attention deficit disorder medication.

There's a huge potential market for Zipdrug in Baby Boomers. Ten thousand people turn 65 each day, and for many of them, getting to the pharmacy is a massive chore. But CityMD and Zipdrug executives believe the initial audience for the pilot is early adopters--young, busy New Yorkers already accustomed to an on-demand life. Zipdrug says its order numbers are growing by five times every month--and customers are proving to be loyal to the service already. And, Libby says, "we are finding health care providers and caregivers to be very interested as well."

Say all you like about how the oldest Americans are being left out of this tech boom because they're not smartphone-savvy. But Zipdrug is part of an increasingly rich ecosystem of new startup-bred tools that could very well make the lives of the elderly--particularly those living in densely populated cities--much easier. PillPack, a pharmacy-by-delivery with more than $50 million in venture capital funding, is something of a competitor--though it is looking to compete directly with the likes of Walgreens and Rite Aid rather than work with them, as Zipdrug is doing. Home health care is a perennial entry on fast-growing industry lists, and AngelList catalogs almost 300 startups currently in that space.

For now, Zipdrug has dozens of messengers (bike, foot, and car), whom the chief executive admits the company pays "a premium" for--and new recruits are coming through word of mouth. But will they be reliable--and will a scaled-up delivery force that's actually willing to be background-checked and go through rigorous training materialize? The wild card with Zipdrug is whether the on-demand economy can truly be applied to something as personal and sensitive--and, yes, as dangerous--as drugs.

Published on: Jan 7, 2016