Gregory Rockson, CEO of mPharma is building the largest pharmaceutical data platform for emerging markets. How is he doing it?
Disruption. Here is an instance where the beloved tech buzzword will not be used in vain.mPharma co-founded in 2013 by Ghanaian entrepreneur Gregory Rockson is laying the foundation to become the number one e-prescription network in emerging markets, leading with Africa.Novartis, Pfizer and Roche, three of the main pharmaceutical giants, are already clientsafter only one year of commercial operation.
“When mobile communication networks were set up across Africa,” says Gregory Rockson, “telecom companies had to invest in towers before selling sim cards to consumers. Our application suite is the sim card that we give to doctors and hospitals, and we are building the towers that allow them to use the application”.
As the above analogy suggests, mPharma doesn’t just provide analytical data to drug companies and health ministries; the company is building an infrastructure and a drug monitoring system that connects patients, hospitals and pharmacies to a cloud-based software. Doctors know in real-time the exact location and availability of any medication of interest, and patients have a more reliable access to medicines.
As a 2011 World Economic Forum Global Shaper, a speaker at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, and founder of Six Days of Peace for the Middle East, Gregory Rockson is without question an achiever. Despite the recognition, the young entrepreneur is personable and carries himself with humility as we meet in the heart of San Francisco. He talks with ease about his background, politics and what led him to entrepreneurship, but the fire and passion come out when explaining the behind-the-scenes of building the next African healthcare platform.
Gregory, can you tell us about your family background? Where do you come from?
I grew up in Tema, a coastal city 25 km east of Accra, Ghana. My mother was a teacher, my father was a UN Peacekeeper. Education was all we had. My dad, who was typically very serious, would often joke that the trust fund he would leave us is our education. I grew up with books, knowing that to be successful, I had to focus on studying. I moved to the US in 2009 at 16 to study. I spent some time in Denmark as a research fellow at the University of Copenhagen. I returned to Ghana in 2013 to start mPharma after spending two more years in the US.
What did you want to do as a kid? Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?
(Laughs). No, I didn’t even know the word entrepreneur but looking back I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I just didn’t have the drive to go into business yet. I actually wanted to be a catholic priest, since I grew up in a strongly catholic family. That didn’t happen for different reasons but because I love teaching, I was planning on getting a Ph.D. to become an academician. While I like studying theory, I realized that I am much more excited when I get my hands dirty. From a very young age, I wanted to find a cure for AIDS. I was probably 10 or 12 then. At the age of 15, I set up a nonprofit to provide help to children living with HIV-AIDS in Ghana. Even though I never intended to be an entrepreneur, I knew that if I wanted to tackle social issues, I needed to build a business to have the financial bandwidth to do so.
You created Six Days of Peace in Copenhagen in 2011 to bring Palestinians and Israeli leaders together. You’ve been involved with Next Generation in 2012, a program supported by Hillary Clinton. How did you get a foothold in the world of nonprofits and politics?
I like politics, and I think that everyone should be into politics. Politics define the global social making. As a kid, my dad would buy the newspaper every morning at 5 am and when he had finished, he would make me read it before going to school. I was that kid who knew what was happening in the world in class, very early on I was interested in world events and news. When I went to college as a premed student, I got involved with the Obamacare debate and the public policy side of healthcare. When it passed in congress, I thought that while I would have liked to practice medicine, I could do more as an individual if I could help improve the policy side of healthcare. Helping increase its access to more people was more valuable to me, so I started studying public policy.
« We speak a lot about Africa rising, but I realized that the Africa rising narrative doesn’t make sense if Africans are not rising. »
Next Generation brought you to California. Why did you decide to leave San Francisco to start your own company?
As I was leaving Next Generation at the end of 2012, I started interviewing with big tech companies in the Silicon Valley. I was in a final round of interviews with Google and I thought that I was going to stay in California but over the years I had grown passionate about Africa. We speak a lot about Africa rising, but I realized that the Africa rising narrative didn’t make sense if Africans were not rising. I reached the stage where I knew I had to go back home. At that time, I came across the story in a Ghanaian newspaper of a woman with a cardiovascular disease who stayed in critical condition at the hospital while doctors were looking for the drug that would save her life. By the time doctors found the medicine, the patient in an already critical condition passed away. That’s when I started working on the idea behind mPharma.
Gregory, that is fascinating. What was your thinking process?
The story of this woman didn’t make sense to me. I can order food, order a taxi, book a hotel room in real time. Why do doctors have to rely on phone calls to locate drugs? Why do they have to write prescriptions on paper to order them? What about the follow-up appointments? Once the patient leaves the consulting room, that’s generally the end of the relationship with the doctor. The doctor to patient ratio in Africa is roughly 1 for 15 000. Doctors do not have the time to follow up with every patient.
In the United States, there is an entire network built by the pharmaceutical retail chains and insurance companies that connects all the pharmacies in the nation to a central information exchange. mPharma is building this massive backend infrastructure to connect pharmacies together, provide data in real time to doctors and in the future link to insurance companies.
What is the scope of mPharma now?
We processed almost 6000 prescriptions in our database in the past three months. But our mission is much more complicated than just giving software. We invest in the hospitals we select. We realized that if we wanted to bring onboard health facilities we had to go beyond just thinking about software, we had to look at the whole ecosystem. So we connect hospitals and pharmacies to our network and we bundle connectivity, device and the application as a service.
You are building this massive network for Africa. What are the challenges you’ve been faced with?
Any person who has spent close to 6 years in the US and Europe goes with preconceived ideas of how things should work but when it is time to get things done, you are quickly faced with reality. We came close to death so many times and to be honest in our first four months we didn’t know what we were doing. Today in many ways, healthcare in Africa is donor driven (Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, USAID grants etc…) While they help tremendously, I do not think the donations are sustainable. So we decided that we wanted to make a real impact while being the most successful technology company on the continent. That presented its own challenges because we had to forgo the donors and build a business model to achieve our vision.
Your headquarters are in Tel Aviv, why not start in Ghana? You also have teams in Zambia and Ivory Coast. How did you get off the ground in these countries?
We were lucky that Microsoft R&D site in Israel selected us to incubate and move our headquarters there. It is quite unfortunate, but it also gives us more credibility than if were simply based in Ghana, or anywhere in Africa. We closed a lot of our later deals because we had a presence outside of Africa.
At the beginning, since we didn’t have a lot of money, coupling trying to be commercial and convincing people in Ghana wasn’t easy. Hospitals were not coming on board and pharmacies were not willing to give us access to their inventory. By chance, when I attended the World Health Assembly in Geneva, a top diplomat from the Zambian delegation caught a conversation I had about mPharma. He thought it was interesting and invited me to come to Zambia to introduce me to the health ministry and maybe have a chance to set up mPharma there. I flew to Zambia for the first time and stayed to set up our first pilot program in April.
For the first time, doctors were using mPharma and 1000 patients received their prescriptions through the application. We were able to extract an enormous amount of data to track drugs on a dashboard as well as establish a real-time disease surveillance system. The government who has been struggling for a long time to get such data was impressed by our solution and decided to scale it up.
99% of the drugs consumed in Africa are imported so our next step was to go to pharmaceutical companies. Companies like Pfizer, our first enterprise client, are always trying to understand medicine usage on the ground to identify their needs and prioritize their sales efforts. In essence, we created a real-time market intelligence tool. With the success we had in Zambia we went back to Ghana and just within a couple of months, we had a business.
Orange Telecom reached out to us during the same period to set up mPharma in Côte d’Ivoire, and we are currently working with them to launch in Abidjan.
We are meeting in San Francisco today. Why are you in the Bay Area right now? In your opinion, what are the misconceptions about investing in Africa?
I always come down to the Valley for business and I love San Francisco, but I am here because we were fortunate to be selected by the Alchemist, the top Silicon Valley enterprise accelerator. The Alchemist backed by Khosla Ventures, Cisco, Andreessen Horowitz to name a few, opens its investment network and clients to 10 companies each year. We are the first African startup to be selected for the program!
For my American friends who raise money and build businesses in the US, the biggest challenge is to convince investors to believe in their solution. As an African entrepreneur in the US, your biggest challenge is to convince investors to invest in your solution but most importantly to believe that the next source of growth will come from Africa. It is not easy, a lot of Americans still associate Africa with starving kids and poverty. Africa is not a commercial prospect for them and I understand why.
What does the African tech Diaspora here in the Valley need to do to foster success in the community?
There are not a lot of Africans in the Silicon Valley working in the tech sphere to begin with and the diaspora is not extremely engaged compared to the Jewish diaspora for instance. When you go to Israel you do not have to know anyone, there is often a three degrees of separation, someone will try to connect you with a person they know. We do not have this kind of culture in African families and the homogeneity in the African diaspora doesn’t help. We have to move beyond the hype in the ecosystems to stimulate investments. We need to see more collaboration and in order to see this happen, we need more successful tech entrepreneurs.
Do you see a trend where repatriates get involved in tech ecosystems in their home countries? What is their role?
When you compare today to five years ago they are a lot more Africans who are going back home after studying and working abroad to get things done. This is exciting! The only people who can build Africa are Africans. I think there is a need for humility when we go back. Besides, what we take back home is often not applicable in Africa. We have to teach ourselves how to be successful in a different context and the best people we can learn it from are talents who have been successful in the continent.
It is the beginning of the journey for mPharma. What have you learned?
One of the things I learn as an entrepreneur is that you have to ask yourself the right questions. They are two kinds of people: those who ask how things work and those who question why things exist. With the first instance, you always look for incremental changes. You don’t want to disrupt the system, you just want to see how the system will be efficient. I believe it is where Africa is now. We know how things work, but we stopped questioning why things exist. We need to take a more self-critical approach when we do things! I believe it can be achieved with an educational system that will allow graduates to think differently, to question why things exist. The biggest step we can take to change Africa is fixing our educational system.