Sometimes a great idea comes when you’re not expecting it. One day, Ali Esmail’s wife made a comment that stuck with him. She thought that filling a drug prescription should be as simple as depositing a cheque, which you can now do by taking a photograph of your cheque with a smartphone. Later, when Ali was diagnosed with an ear infection, he discovered that many pharmacies offer home delivery services. Combining these two insights led Ali and his colleague Vejey Gandier to develop PopRx, a mobile app and associated service to fill and deliver prescription medications. PopRx was recently featured on CBC TV’s “Next Gen Den,” a spinoff of “Dragons’ Den.”

When Ali and Vejey demonstrated their initial smartphone app to independent pharmacies, they discovered a much larger market opportunity. While all Canadian pharmacies are under considerable economic pressure, the smaller independent businesses are at risk of being left behind as they lack the resources required to follow the path of broader retail offerings being pioneered by large retail pharmacy chains. Independent pharmacies are looking for different ways to survive and compete.

A few decades ago, most pharmacies were small independent stores. In fact, Canadian regulations require that drugstores be owned by pharmacists. However, emerging pharmacy chains like Shoppers Drug Mart, which is now the largest Canadian pharmacy chain, developed a business model that enables pharmacists to operate independent dispensaries as licensed associate-owners inside a retail drugstore chain. In this fashion, pharmacists can benefit from a single consumer brand with the support of a large corporation. Pharmacy chains continue to grow market share at the expense of independent pharmacies.

In a further bid to increase revenues, pharmacy chains like Shoppers have moved to larger store formats. They’ve added cosmetics, food and other retail categories to their offerings, bringing them into competition with supermarkets. Interestingly, Shoppers was acquired by Loblaw, the largest food retailer in Canada, in 2013. Meanwhile, expanded supermarkets are in turn under competitive threat from hypermarkets that offer an even wider range of products, like the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. While pharmacy sales are only a small fraction of its business, Walmart is the third-largest pharmacy chain in the United States after Walgreens and CVS.

So what are small independent pharmacists to do? They cannot compete by offering a wider selection of retail merchandise in a large store. Fortunately, convenience remains very important to consumers. A recent survey found that 57% of Americans choose a pharmacy based on its location and live within an average of two kilometres from their chosen pharmacy.

Personalized home delivery is often a distinguishing feature of independent pharmacies. However, small pharmacies often lack the resources required to provide online technologies that assist customers in managing all of the processes related to obtaining a prescription online, including the initial prescription filling, prescription renewal, medication tracking, customer verification, payment and effective delivery scheduling. This is the need that PopRx recognized and positioned itself to address.

PopRx aims to be the quickest and easiest way to organize and order medications with same-day delivery at no extra cost. The app enables users to initiate the filling of a new prescription by taking a picture of the script. The company quickly realized that an app that managed only new prescriptions would be hard to market. They also realized that consumers have issues with every stage of medication management, not just the initial fill. That’s why PopRx also offers users a way to automatically generate a list of their medications by taking a picture of each bottle and to track their prescription renewals and order them through the app. As for payment, insurance companies are billed directly and any supplementary payments can be made immediately through Apple Pay or Stripe via the app. Users can also book delivery at a time that fits their schedules.

PopRx offers its technology and service to independent pharmacies based on exclusive rights to serve a defined geographic region. Through PopRx, these pharmacies are able to offer the latest customer service technologies to their customers, meeting demands for the increasingly comprehensive and personalized services expected of them in a cost-effective way. This allows the independents to compete for business by offering a business proposition focused purely on convenient sales and services, and it allows the app’s users to be matched to the specific pharmacies that can meet their needs. It’s a win-win situation.

The initial PopRx pilot took place in Winnipeg and was later expanded to the Vancouver and Victoria areas. Most recently it was rolled out in the Greater Toronto Area and surrounding regions.

Ali and Vejey are clearly excited by the great feedback and early traction they have achieved. You can learn more about the PopRx proposition in this recent BetaKit interview.

Martin Sumner-Smith

Martin Sumner-Smith, PhD, was a senior advisor with MaRS Health Venture Services. See more…