Saturday 17 March 2018

Alan O'Neill: Research was crucial to Pharmapod's success in the Canadian market

Pharmapod founder Leonora O’Brien
Pharmapod founder Leonora O’Brien

Alan O'Neill

In recent years, I have been asked to speak at conferences in Ireland and in the Middle East for the pharmacy sector. When preparing, I listen to the brief and then conduct research. This week I was shocked to learn that the equivalent of four jumbo-jets full of people die unnecessarily every week in the US, due to human error.

There are a number of reasons for this - misdiagnosis by doctors, dosage instructions incorrectly delivered or administered, patient errors, and so on.

As a community, pharmacies impress me with their sense of ethics and responsibility. While it's not yet mandatory, they do try to document errors that they discover so that the industry can learn and take preventative action for the future. There is a sea-change across the world and the industry is moving towards a collaborative no-blame culture.

The process of documenting is ad hoc right now. Pharmacies tend to use their own systems, such as paper-based forms and excel sheets.

Leonora O'Brien MPSI has over 20 years' experience in both commercial and regulatory roles. As the 'responsible person', she was keen to develop a consolidated approach to recording errors. This presented a business opportunity and she founded Pharmapod, cloud-based software for the recording of all errors. With ease and efficiency, pharmacies can track every single issue as it arises. The information is registered anonymously in a master database and identifies trends, and supports continuous improvement in the sector. In effect, Pharmapod has a very noble ambition and will save lives.

Recent challenges

Pharmapod experienced all of the usual startup challenges such as securing funding, building teams, etc. It also had to convince pharmacies to invest in a new licensed service that had never been a financial consideration before.

Along came the dynamo that is Anne Keogh. An ACCA qualified accountant with experience in startups, she took on the additional role of operations and sales. Very quickly, the company made inroads in Ireland and the UK.

With any innovative digital product or service, scaling-up becomes an early topic of conversation. They currently sell their service to individual pharmacies online. But getting volume by breaking into large chains will always require face-to-face contact. The challenge for Anne and the team was to find new geographic markets with sufficient potential to warrant investment in terms of time, effort and money.

Changes made

My experience with startups is that they tend to go through a lot of change in the early years. That's OK provided executives are proactive, stay focused and not just react to every whim. Each day brings new opportunities and challenges. Coping with them requires discipline.

Pharmapod developed a unique product that is in constant development but the core remains the same, with changes aimed at scaling up.

Canada was always in Anne's top five and she conducted many hours of research. "The more research I did, the luckier I got," she said. It cost nothing, except hours of Googling.

That research focused initially on the legislative environment. She discovered that Canada was further on the journey of mandatory recording. Further research exposed a potential market size of 10,000 pharmacies, with top chains accounting for 40pc of that.

Enterprise Ireland was organising a trade mission to Canada, which coincided with a convention for the Canadian Pharmacy Association and Pharmapod was invited to go. Enterprise Ireland executive, Cameron Lilly (SVP of Technology and Financial Services) gave tremendous support, setting up meetings with the Canadian regulators. In the first meeting, those regulators understood what Pharmapod was all about and the ball started rolling from there.


Breaking into new markets is an ambition for many Irish companies. There is so much Brexit fatigue around that it's good to see a company getting on with exploring different markets. Here is a summary of the steps that were so effective for Pharmapod.

1 Research your market and become the expert. Study the legislative environment and the commercial make-up. Find out who is who. This served Pharmapod really well when in negotiations with regulators and customers. By showing the depth of their knowledge, Anne and the team proved that Pharmapod was serious about supporting this new market.

2 Anticipate obstacles and manage risks. As it turned out, some of the big players in Canada would not sign confidentiality agreements with Pharmapod. Having invested so much in their intellectual property, Anne and team were determined not to roll over and allow the attraction of a big deal to dominate. Be prepared to say 'no'. (All parties have since signed the agreement).

3 Seek the support of key influencers. They might be locals in the market or indeed state bodies such as Enterprise Ireland. Now we don't all have such life-saving products that appeal to hearts and minds, but tremendous support is always available from Enterprise Ireland.

4 Invest and, where possible, go directly to the market. Meet key customers face-to-face. Few can tell your story with as much passion and conviction as you can yourself.

Just this week, Anne returned from Canada with a significant signing by one of the largest pharmacy regulators in the country. This will see Pharmapod being rolled out in 40pc of Canadian pharmacies over the next 12 months.

Alan O'Neill is a change consultant and non-executive director. For 25-plus years he has been supporting global and iconic brands through change. Business advice questions for Alan can be sent to

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