Irish start-up Pharmapod on mission to bring pharmacies into the digital age

9 Jul 2013

Leonora O'Brien, founder, Pharmapod, and Jim Kee, pharmacist at Corr's Pharmacy, Clare Hall Shopping Centre, Dublin. Image via Brendan Duffy

Leonora O’Brien is the founder of a new Irish cloud-based start-up called Pharmapod. Having worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 16 years, O’Brien recently decided to follow the entrepreneurial path and set up her own business. Her new technology start-up is garnering notice in the digital entrepreneurship scene in both Ireland and abroad, as Pharmapod’s software aims to bring pharmacies into the digital age.

In recent weeks, Pharmapod has scooped numerous accolades, including the €5,000 prize fund at the Tech Entrepreneurs workshop in Dublin as part of the European Digital Agenda Assembly in June. Last week, O’Brien was named as a finalist in the global Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards – the first Irish woman ever to be nominated for such an international honour.

A pharmacist by trade, O’Brien said she decided to leave the industry and become an entrepreneur when she spotted a niche to change the way pharmacies interact with each other and, ultimately, with patients.

Launched in November 2012, Pharmapod aims to improve knowledge sharing amongst pharmacists. The software caters for both community and hospital pharmacies, and should prevent errors or medication-related incidents, she said.

“When you work in the industry you see patterns, such as prescribing errors and patients having adverse reactions to medicines,” said O’Brien. “So I was compelled to set up Pharmapod. You have an idea and you don’t really have a choice but to follow it. If you’re not obsessed with the problem that you are trying to solve it is such a hard route to take.”

O’Brien left a job with the Pharmacy Regulator in 2012 to devote herself to her business full time.

“You take a personal risk for the sake of solving a problem, to bring your idea to fruition, to contribute positively to society,” she said. 

From idea to reality

The evolution of Pharmapod from a business idea to a fledgling start-up happened swiftly. O’Brien entered the 12-week LaunchPad start-up incubation programme at the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) in Dublin in early 2012. Her start-up is still based in the centre’s office space for new ventures. During LaunchPad, O’Brien grew the team to six people, taking on new hires, such as developers.

Describing the NDRC as a “hub of positivity” O’Brien said being part of the ecosystem there proved very helpful when getting Pharmapod up and running.

“Especially in the recession there are so many driven, young entrepreneurs around here. You don’t feel that you are alone. Start-ups can sometimes feel that isolation,” she said. “We don’t feel that. We are surrounded by people with equal challenges.”

Having finished up on LaunchPad in May of last year, Pharmapod finished its software development and did some beta testing with Irish pharmacies before launching the product to the market in November. The company is now part of the Enterprise Ireland high-potential start-up (HPSU) programme.

“We did our user acceptance with pharmacies in Ireland. Ireland is our test market. We’re fine-tuning things here before we move abroad. We’re now doing feasibility studies for France and Belgium,” O’Brien said.

Eyes on Europe

With the help of Enterprise Ireland, Pharmapod has already carried out a feasibility study for the UK, where it plans to launch at the end of this year.

In France, O’Brien has spotted a niche to capitalise on the country’s 22,000 or so pharmacies and 73,000 pharmacists. Meanwhile, Belgium, she believes, will offer the company a window into Europe.

“Belgium is a smaller market, but it gives a lot of visibility in Europe. Also, the head of the pharmacy union is in Brussels. You have a lot of centralised activity there. It’s like a gateway to Europe, really,” she said. “It makes sense to do it hand in hand with France in case there are any language localisation issues.”

O’Brien is one of three women entrepreneurs from Europe, and the first from Ireland, who have been nominated for the Cartier Awards. Created in 2006 by Cartier and the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, in partnership with INSEAD business school and McKinsey & Company, every year six women ‘laureates’ are chosen to receive $20,000 as well as a year’s worth of mentoring.

Describing the application process for the Cartier awards as “very tough”, O’Brien said it takes the best part of a year. Of the some 1,200 entrepreneurs who submitted applications, O’Brien was whittled down to the final 18.

Pointing to her win at the Tech Entrepreneurs workshop, O’Brien said she has noticed that the Irish Government is starting to recognise the need to look at small companies now and to propel digital entrepreneurship in order to help create jobs.

“Entrepreneurs nearly have a new-found respect because government realises that it’s one of the key ways of driving employment within a country,” she said.

“Whoever comes up with the most innovative way of doing things or the quickest way of getting something done – that’s going to be chosen over a business that has been there forever, charging a high cost for their services,” she said. “Now there are people disrupting different sectors and innovating and challenging each sector to look at things in a fresh way. Innovation is one of the positive spin-offs from a recession and I’m so glad to be part of it.”

She is adamant that people with an idea for a start-up should not be afraid of the “digital” word.

O’Brien said entrepreneurs need to know their profession, and they can build up their teams with the skill sets they themselves don’t have. “The technology can follow but the idea and the strategy are the most important thing for a business.”

Data analysis

The plan for Pharmapod is to focus on the analysis of the data that comes back from the pharmacists using the platform. “We’ll share that data back with the profession so it can learn from medication errors that are happening and what the high-risk medicines are.”

At the end of August, Pharmapod is also launching another module centred on ‘clinical services’, starting with the seasonal influenza vaccine. As it’s now legal in Ireland for pharmacists to give people the flu vaccine, O’Brien said Pharmapod is building a platform where a consultation will be there online for the pharmacists.

All the consultation will be done in a standard way, gathering the correct information and giving the patient information on preventative measures, O’Brien said.

“We can see how many people are being immunised across the country and gather the data from that,” she said. “It’s just to give pharmacists a standardised approach to the consultation. We have had a lot of pharmacists asking us for that.”

She said there’s scope to take this platform further in the future for illnesses such as diabetes. In terms of big data, O’Brien sees the scope to feed Pharmapod’s data back into the healthcare system to help improve patient care.

“We want to engage with as many stakeholders as possible, such as the HSE, the regulators, and the manufacturers of the medicines. We want to show what the risks are and what progress has been made in the profession to drive the healthcare agenda.”

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 7 July

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic