FarmaTrust is a global tracking system which aims to provide security and efficiency benefits to the pharmaceutical companies, governments, regulators and the public, and also to ensure that counterfeit drugs do not enter the supply chain. We caught up with Raja Sharif, founder and CEO; Peter Bryant, COO; and Shahnawaz Aziz, CTO, to find out more about their blockchain solution to an old industry problem.
Q: It’s great to meet you guys, we have heard a lot about you and your product. What’s the idea behind the FarmaTrust Project?
Raja: When I was working at Al-Jazeera, I started reading about smart contracts, because it was a concept that interested me, because one day it could end up removing the need for lawyers (Raja is a barrister by background)! Then, after having done some research and taken a look around different industries, it occured to me that the Pharma industry could really benefit from Smart Contracts, mainly due to their immutability, and this would be something that would benefit the wider public. I felt that smart contracts would be of particular use when dealing with the many regulatory requirements that those within the pharma industry have to adhere too.
Q: What would you say are the issues that you have the solutions to?
Raja: Up to a million people, according to the WHO, are dying because of fraudulent and incorrect medicines – that is the main problem. And not do people just die, but then whole generations find themselves ruined financially. A family wastes money on substandard drugs, and then getting into debt to buy more drugs to try and help this sick person, dealing with the fallout. We take it for granted, in a developed country, the fact that we have either the NHS or an insurance scheme, not everyone is so lucky. Then we also come onto the issue of inefficiencies, relating to drugs that are expired/out of date and sitting on the shelves, and this costs the industry, as a whole, about $3bn at the moment in the US alone. You know, this money could have been used for R&D in order to find, and develop, so many more drugs.
These companies need more visibility over their products worldwide, because it is hard to keep track of them, with all the different systems, in different jurisdictions etc. This is something that we can solve for them, because we are tackling it throughout the supply chain – at all the different points. This means that anyone, anywhere, will be able to scan a pharmaceutical product and then be able to tell if it is the real deal. In the developing world, for example, people can use their mobile phones for this, rather than having to invest in pricey scanning equipment.
Peter: It is worth pointing out that, not only are we satisfying the track and trace element of the regulations of the FDA and others, we are also providing management info and intelligence to various companies about all of these products, which can be massively useful to them. We were talking to someone earlier this week who was losing 5% of revenue just through non-reconciliation of accounts! And it also provides a touchpoint for people who would not necessarily trust each other. The whole industry is essentially trustless, and improving trust, not just to the public, but also to regulators and NGOs as well, is important.
Raja: Returns fraud is a big thing too. One company in 2014, for example, managed to defraud a couple of pharmaceutical companies out of $480m in an 18 month period, via precisely the kind of issues that Peter was just illustrating.
Q: Who are the main beneficiaries of your system?
Raja: Well the pharmaceutical supply chain is like any other big supply chain – you have many different people within it, with a different level of interest in our systems. For instance, DHL and other logistics companies really like blockchain, and have been testing it out. Some pharma corporations are dabbling in it too. But in time, with the right education and success stories – we believe that they will all get fully on board, when they understand the benefits that we are bringing for them.
Developing nations are a massive beneficiary of our system, because they will find it easier to adopt our technology straight away. They can almost leapfrog a couple of generations of technological development by going straight from, say, a paper-based system to a mobile one; skipping multiple stages of developments that other countries have to go/had gone through. For instance, we can look at the Telecoms industry as an example of this, they are using mobile internet and installing mobile phones everywhere – going straight to wireless technology. You look at the fact that mobile phone payments in Africa are huge, much more common than here in the UK.
They also tend to very youthful populations, and this is only growing. This means that with these young people driving change, these countries are more open to solutions such as ours. We believe that we can tap into this change, this big technology leap into blockchain systems. Look at charities: once they send drugs into these countries they don’t know what happens to them, but with our tech they will suddenly have full transparency on where they end up, who is taking control of them. Their governments also have a political motive to be working with us, because they want to seem as innovative as possible.
Generic companies are also open and receptive, often more so than others. They tend to operate with thinner margins and on a smaller scale, and they want a solution installed quickly. And because they have a smaller bureaucratic structure – they can do this. We find that it is easier to explain our solution to them as well.
We also found ourselves speaking with the association of online pharmacies, and they are trying various things to ensure the safety of their medicines, their products. So then the fact that our system shows them all the various steps, from beginning to end, with no chance of the data being changed, this type of system could be a game-changer for them. As a whole, the online marketplace for drugs is somewhere where we will look to have a massive impact in.
Then you also have law enforcement and NGOs. For example, Interpol can inform various law enforcement bodies if we find a large batch of counterfeit drugs. Then they can go in there, check what is going on, and take these drugs out of circulation. As for NGOs, a cost effective solution helps them a lot as, being taxpayer funded, they face higher controls on their spending, and more scrutiny as to where they spend their money.
Q: So you are talking to all these different beneficiaries and partners- what motivates them to use your solution more- is it the money or the cost savings?
Raja: Well we think that it is possible for both of these goals to go hand in hand. Companies will spend some of the money on their shareholders, of course, but these potentially massive savings can be used to spend money on other important areas. Then, there is also the tax incentives. Efficiency and keeping people alive goes hand in hand, and at the end of the day the function of these industries, in one way or another, is to keep people alive.
Peter: Also, the brands that we are dealing with don’t want any PR damage, and that is another factor, they don’t want their name being associated with any drugs that are potentially fraudulent, or harmful. So for them, it is not just the money, it’s also about the absence of negative publicity.
Raja: And if you think about product recalls too, we are able to make that process a whole lot easier as well, it could take literally seconds; you can put a block on the PoS systems and instantly stop any pharmacies selling anymore of these drugs.
Q: OK, so tell us about you and your team – what’s your background?
Raja: So there is myself, I am a Barrister by background, and have worked as General Counsel and company secretary managing legal affairs, risk and good corporate governance. I have also managed a number of major technology and media projects worldwide. Then there is Peter, our COO; and before joining us he had successfully created and grown businesses and realised value through trade sales. Shahnawaz is a senior technologist with over 21 years of IT experience in managing, architecting, designing and developing software applications across Financial Services, Investment Banking, Shipping & Logistics and Government projects. He has been involved in blockchain for a number of years.
Then we have David A. Cohen, our Chief Technology Adviser at FarmaTrust. David is internationally renowned for his pioneering work in the Decentralized Software industry, Digital Currency and Blockchain industry. He was the founder and CEO of Infotility, and also a former IOTA Foundation member. David is currently founder and Chairman of dcntral, a blockchain-based Cybersecurity company as well as advisor on the Machine Economy for Hashgraph. Last but by no means least, there is Mike Barbarelli, our senior software developer. He has over a decade of experience in full stack web development, has been involved with blockchain technology since 2016, and is a certified Ethereum developer. These are just some of the guys on our team, but there are plenty more who do great work for us.
Q: Do you think your background stands out, in terms of blockchain related startups?
Raja: Yes, I guess we have a slightly different background to the rest of the ICO/blockchain ‘crowd’, we are not fresh out of university, or whatever. The thing is though, investment rules are always the same, regardless of what kind of company you are running, or are involved with; you need a strategy, you need a product, and you need guys with the knowhow to take you forward and keep you innovative. Obviously, I am not saying that coming from university is a negative – look at the massive companies like Apple, Facebook etc.- these were all started by university dropouts. However, these guys were still smart enough to assemble an experienced and competent team around them, and this is what makes the difference. We don’t want to alienate ourselves from our ICO colleagues though, it’s just pointing out that our background is different. At the end of the day, can anyone really say they have a ‘blockchain background’ in such a fledgling industry?
We are providing a business solution based on a nascent technology. We have identified and are already working on solving a problem, whereas many others in this area have either invented a new concept, or a new framework, and then have to work out how to implement it. We have a great use-case, coupled with pitching it to a market that has a financial incentive to get on board with our product.
One of the things, is that we don’t emphasise the blockchain issue – it is a tool within the total offering. We are not just trying to squeeze blockchain into our solution you know, just because it either sounds good, or we thought why not – it actually brings us benefits of immutability, cross-border solutions, security, the whole package. We tick all the boxes as to why you would use blockchain for your company. It’s more secure than cloud based systems or servers, and it works with other technologies and legacy systems.
Q: What’s your view on the ecosystem as a whole at the moment?
Peter: We recognise that this is a massive market and that we are not the only guys who are doing this – therefore we are heavily helping to promote the various different interoperability standards throughout this industry. For instance, if you were to have an app where you can check on the status of a drug, it could look up many different providers who are the custodians of this information, not necessarily just us.
Raja: I think the whole blockchain ethos is about cooperation, that whole Silicon Valley mentality of “let’s talk and work together” Obviously we are still competitors with each other, but we still can come together to pursue goals equally, and work together to make society a better place. There may be, for example, some other people who are better at tackling certain issues than we are, we may be the best solution for the developing world due to our cost efficiency, whereas others may be the best choice at the logistical level. But I think that we have really thought about it as a complete solution for the pharmaceutical industry; and we would be very happy for instance with say taking 10% of this market, that would still be a massive amount!
Shahnawaz: We met someone who was working in this field, who were narrowly focused on getting the tracers into the pill, working on research etc. that in the end they hadn’t had any time or money to work on the back end, the software, the infrastructure, to support their technology. So they were looking at us as a possible partner and a solution to this problem – maybe there is a synergy here, in 1-3 years time, with their front end and our back end basically, so this shows how we are flexible and how we can all work together, just by talking.
Q: Do you think the negative press around Bitcoin at the moment is a hindrance?
Raja: I do think that the reputation of blockchain has suffered, thanks to what has happened with bitcoin; although I think that is changing slowly. Of course in any industry there are scams, but they do seem to be highlighted within the bitcoin-sphere. Everyone wants in, they want to know about it – and the news focuses on the negative or sensational aspects.
This is a nascent industry, and this is likely to change over time. People can be scared off by blockchain, due to the Bitcoin negativity. Therefore, we need to educate people, our partners, on the separation between bitcoin and blockchain, and the benefits and safety of blockchain. It’s a bit like e-mail at the very start. I mean right now, most people in the industry are using cloud based systems – they are much less secure than blockchain technology! I mean, Bitcoin has never been hacked, the fundamental technology is very secure.
Q: So you have you own form of cryptocurrency within the system- can you talk to us about how it works?
Raja: You buy a single token, an FTT token, and it can be used to either buy compliance tokens (CTT), in a batch amount for tracking, or you can use these ZOI tokens to actually take the data from our platform. Anyone within this supply chain may want to take the data off our system, for analysis by Governments, NGOs etc. or companies seeking to minimise their losses and maximise their efficiency. And then you have a whole marketplace ecosystem in place as well.
Q: How are you specifically using different technologies?
Raja: Well we are at an exciting point right now; with AI, blockchain, IoT technologies maturing, becoming more understood, and with wider acceptance. As for medical systems and devices, the regulation is fairly similar already, so this is definitely something we are also interested in. We have deliberately made ourselves sensor neutral, we only care about the data points, whether it is RFID, IBM chip, QR code, we don’t really care because they all can be incorporated into our system to make it work better. We are blockchain neutral too – just because we are right now basing what we do on Ethereum – that doesn’t mean we cant move to a different blockchain in future – we can stay ahead and onboard and flexible with these changes.
That it one of our differentiators – other similar companies are forcing their clients to use a particular sensor. In our opinion you would have to be a massive corporate entity with substantial R&D budgets to go down this route – much better and easier for us to take an holistic approach. Everything will soon become automated; from the packing of medicines to the delivery to a pharmacy or customer. And then we are future proofing ourselves already, because we are collecting data at each and every point on this journey.
Peter: Also, you are seeing regulation that will be enacted and implemented during 2018 and ‘19, which introduces serialisation and digital identities on products. Without this new technology being introduced our product couldn’t really exist, so we are now at the perfect time to take advantage of this technology when it comes into play – it’s almost like the planets aligning.
Q: What’s next for you guys technology wise? And once you ‘conquer the market’ will you move onto another one?
Raja: Technology is moving really fast when it comes to all of this labelling technology, and we can work with them all whether they are QR, RFID, other smart labels, or new environmental sensors. For instance, normally you can only use RFID technology on the more expensive products, because of the cost of producing such chips etc., but now you have printable RFID chips that are coming along, much like printable QR Codes. Also, there are interesting things being done with molecular systems that you can put into the platform – that’s the really interesting stuff – you could end up being able to track each individual pill basically, not just the packet as a whole.
Peter: The use of RFID Chips to monitor the environmental conditions of products for Temperature-sensitive drugs for instance are really interesting as their effectiveness can be reduced if the temperature has been changed too much in the process of transport of a drug.So then you know whether these strict parameters for temperature have been breached.
Shahnawaz: The strategy to the solution of the problem is more important than the technology we are using to achieve this. The great thing is that we can always change our technology, we can adapt depending on how fast or slow the uptake of this all is. The main thing that we have to focus on is the immutability of blockchain, and how vitally important that is when applying our solution to this particular industry.
Raja: As for other markets? We don’t look anywhere else – only pharmaceuticals. We don’t really want to be getting into the situation where we are trying to be all things to all men. Obviously there is the possibility down the line of trying to be like an Amazon, you know going into the server sector etc. or other stuff but at the moment and next 5 years or so, 1.3tn dollars is something that we can spend a lot of time working with – and remember we are trying to implement a global solution here too. I think that if we choose one to focus on, and that we then do it well, we are far more likely to be successful, because we will end up understanding the challenges and issues that much better, and you know who is involved.