According to pharmacist-turned-entrepreneur Julie Han, “Pharmacy hasn’t evolved much since the 1970s, so the whole process in which you go into a physical pharmacy, give your prescription, wait, pick up your prescription…people don’t want to wait anymore.”
That, plus her own frustration with working in pharmacies where she felt pressured to serve a lot of customers very quickly, led her to co-founding Airix with fellow pharmacist Michael Bourkas. The free pharmacy app has a brick and mortar shop that opened in April 2018 in the Mile End, but it’s aimed at smartphone users who want push notifications to remind them what day they’re on in their fertility treatments or when to order that refill for an aging parent.
Han admits it was a little scary making the transition from a 9-5 job to running her own business. “I quit my job October 2017 to fully dedicate myself to this. With a startup, sometimes time evolves in strange ways. A lot of people said, ‘You have such a nice, stable job that pays decently!’ But with the app, they’re getting better care and that’s so much more satisfying on a personal level.”
While Han knew that launching a feature-heavy mobile app would take time, she didn’t expect it to be a 24/7 commitment. Airix lets you upload your medical profile, add prescriptions with the camera, order refills for free delivery and track the status of your order, but it was the in-app chat that led to answering questions from clients at 2 a.m. – it’s a real pharmacist replying, after all, not a chatbot.
“Now, when you go in the chat system, it tells you whether the store is online and if you should expect a fast response or if we’ll try to get back to you as soon as possible,” said Han in an interview with MTLinTech. The result? She sleeps better and her approximately 300 Airix users know whether they should expect an immediate response or if it’ll take a few hours.
One Airix client who appreciates the chat feature is Kami Katopodis, a student and part-time worker who’s been using the app for about seven months to coordinate her grandmother’s medications. “It saves me the trip to the pharmacy, especially if I don’t need the medication the same day,” she said.
The in-app list of medications tells her how many days are left before she needs a refill and is also handy for showing her grandma’s doctor what medications she’s taking. The photos that the app provides of each pill lets Katopodis put out her grandmother’s medications for her without being afraid of confusing them. “It’s extremely helpful for a beginner who is more of a visual learner,” she said.
Aleksa has been using the app for the last year and sees the app is a huge upgrade on traditional pharmacies. “My previous pharmacy, I had to take in my prescription, wait for 15 to 30 minutes and go back when my medication expires. It’s 2019 – there’s an app for that!” she said.
Despite all the features, the app has its limitations. Although Airix’s delivery service is fairly quick (a morning order should arrive by evening), for those needing to start a prescription quickly, it might still be best to go with a traditional pharmacy.
“We can use couriers sometimes for clients that have come out from the hospital and need to start a triple antibiotic treatment as fast as possible, but that’s only a small subset of users with acute treatments,” said Han. “A lot of people have very manageable chronic treatments and you know in advance you’ll be running out at a specific date. For women, it’s contraceptives, and actually we will check in with you to remind you that you need to refill your prescription, so you’re not caught off-guard.”
Despite positive initial feedback from users like Katopodis, Han’s leap into entrepreneurship was not without challenges, though she had a lot of help from her co-founder. In addition to being a fellow pharmacist, Bourkas had previously sold some businesses and has a programming background.
“The main challenge was bringing our vision to life,” said Han. “With custom designing everything and building a platform on iOS and Android for patients and a web backend for pharmacists, it had to be dead simple to use. We put in an insane amount of time into every last detail. We didn’t want to compromise on quality.”
Initially, they hired six freelancers. They still use two programmers occasionally, but Bourkas does most of the development work – they’re bootstrapping, after all.
“We’re completely self-funded,” said Han. “We’ve been really lucky to work fulltime as pharmacists for five years and so we put like a lot of our savings into this project and we managed to secure loans through the BDC, Futurpreneur and BMO. BDC and Futurpreneur have a really cool tool for startups where they review your business plan and review what you’re building and for the first year you only pay back the principle.”
They also had to ensure that the app was secure. “Clients entrust us with their medical data. There aren’t any guidelines for that in Canada yet – they’re working on something like that for healthcare – so we’ve been following the American protocol,” said Han.
Now that the system is working smoothly, the challenge is to scale. “We’re at the point where we’re ready to go out in full force,” said Han. “We’d like to open other branches in other provinces and be in Ontario in the next five years.”
Han knows it won’t be easy, since every province has its own pharmacy regulations. “We’ll probably need to hire or work with local pharmacists who have a permit to dispense drugs or provide counselling within their provinces,” she said.
If anyone can jump through healthcare system hoops, two entrepreneurial pharmacists seem like a healthy bet.