The World Health Organization estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa, between 64,000 and 154,000 people die per year from taking fake anti-malaria medications, and other counterfeit drugs claim thousands more lives.
Adebayo Alonge’s was nearly one of them. Over 15 years ago, as a student in Nigeria, he suffered a severe asthma attack. At the hospital, he was given Ventolin, a medication which should have helped him breathe, but instead, because it was counterfeit, put him in a coma for three weeks.
He survived, “but this was the specific experience that stayed with me–it was clear that my life could’ve been ended by a drug that wasn’t what it was supposed to be,”
He went on to study business with a focus on pharmacy at Yale, where he met Amy Kao and Wei Liu, with whom he would launch a startup two years ago to tackle the counterfeit drug epidemic that nearly ended his life.
Called RxAll, the company uses artificial intelligence to verify the legitimacy of medicines on the market.
To do so, RxAll designed and built–with the help of data scientists at Yale–a handheld authenticator that analyzes the particular infrared wavelength that a drug emits.
Each drug has its own unique “spectral fingerprint” that indicates which chemical compounds are present, and at which quantities; that’s what the device, called a nanoscanner, can pick up on.
Quality authentication via this type of technology has been in development in the sciences for several years–Alonge worked with a very large scanner in his final year of undergraduate school in Nigeria in 2008.
This would be even more useful “on the street” to figure out what chemicals are really in that illicit drug being sold as “heroin” or “meth”. It would certainly detect any added fentanyl that could make it deadly.
But RxAll wanted to make it more accessible, and developed a smaller version that costs just $1,000, compared to the standard $20,000, bulkier version
Along with the nanoscanner, the RxAll team also created database that contains the spectral profile of hundreds of drugs.
With the handheld nanoscanner, anyone can scan a drug to detect its chemical makeup and feed that data into RxAll’s cloud-based platform.
The algorithm embedded in the platform analyzes the drug’s spectral profile and cross-checks it against what the profile should read for the legitimate version of the drug.
Once the algorithm has determined if the drug is real or fake–a process that takes just around 20 seconds–it sends a reading to the RxAll app.
According to the company, their nanoscanner works at a 96.7% accuracy rate.
So far, RxAll has deployed around 70 devices to the food and drug administration agencies of five countries in Africa, as well as 200 pharmacies across Nigeria and Kenya, where they’ve detected and prevented the sale of over 60,000 substandard drugs.
Even though the company is relatively new, it’s garnering attention for its straightforward approach to tackling a global problem.