Bright Simons began his career as an activist at an early age. Only a secondary student in Ghana, he organized his friends to protest a change in the school menu with a mass appeal through a popular radio talk show. Upon graduation, he followed his early success by campaigning to drive political change that would open opportunities for people to immigrate freely around the world. But as glamorous as it sounds to be a card-carrying professional activist, governments proved difficult to influence, progress proved slow, and Simons soon became interested in more impact, and maybe even a salary. So reluctantly, he turned to business.
Unsurprisingly, he began to work on opportunities at the intersection of his home country of Ghana, and his home interest of creating positive social change. When he came across the UN estimates that roughly half of the anti-malarial drugs sold in Africa are counterfeits, Simons decided that fake pharmaceuticals might be an effort worthy of his attention. Phony anti-malarials generate $USD 438 million per year in sales on his continent alone. Simons wanted to create a business to stop sales of fake pills. Worthy indeed, as not only are counterfeit drugs responsible for an estimated 2,000 deaths a day globally, but represent a grey industry estimated by Terry Hisey of Deloitte to be worth between $75 billion and $200 billion a year, touching Europe, America and Japan as it does emerging markets. But how do you set up a business to *stop* people from selling things?
Clearly, the legitimate pharmaceutical companies might be interested in curbing fake drug trade. But their willingness to listen to a retired activist with no technology, no product and no experience in the pharma industry was limited. So Simons started talking with more people. He talked with people in the laser hologram and RFID industries to see whether those technologies would enable him to tag genuine drug packages. He talked with pharmacists to understand the supply chain and the consumer buying patterns. But it was talking on his cell phone that showed him he already had all he needed for a solution right in his handset.
In 2007, Simons set up a company named mPedigree. The idea was based on a simple service. Together with a pharmaceutical manufacturer, he would tag individual boxes of legitimate medications with a 10-digit non-duplicable code, covered by a scratch-off surface used on lottery tickets and prepaid cell cards. The end user could dial a toll-free 4-digit SMS number listed on the package, enter the medication code hidden under the scratch-off surface, and within a couple of seconds, receive a validation that the medication was authentic (or not), as well as information about when it was manufactured, and where. Furthermore, the manufacturer could trace where the medication had been sold, when, and even to what cell phone number. The system could close the loop on fake drugs and ensure authenticity to large numbers of patients at very low cost, virtually anywhere in the world and without new technology.
Simons’ first commercial pharmaceutical partner was May & Baker, tagging packages of Easadol, Loxagyl and Artelum and validating them against a database set up in partnership with HP. Today, mPedigree collaborates with virtually all of the cellular service providers operating in Africa, as his service adds value to cell phones. The system has proven so effective that mPedigree has expanded from Ghana into Nigeria and Kenya, and hopes to serve five more African countries before 2011 is complete. Being in the business of stopping business has enabled Simons to hire 12 Associates, earned him an Ashoka fellowship (please see March 2008, this publication) and gained him an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Award from the African Leadership Institute. But most important, it has turned his activist aspirations into impact for real pharmacists, real manufacturers and real patients. Who knows, entrepreneurship might be the secret weapon of the idealist?
Publication: British Airways Business Life
Crazy Quilt (Partnerships)
Lemonade (Leverage Contingencies)
Pilot-in-the-Plane (Control vs. Predict)