About 15 years ago, Adebayo Alonge SOM ’16 took the asthma medication Ventolin in a hospital in Nigeria. Instead of helping him breathe, however, the Ventolin put him in a coma for three weeks and nearly killed him.

The reason? The medication was counterfeit.

Now, with that harrowing experience behind him, Alonge hopes that his startup — which he co-founded with several other students affiliated with Yale — can help others determine the authenticity of the medication and fight the counterfeit drug market.

These Yale alumni have founded RxAll, a startup that uses an artificial intelligence platform that enables spectrometers to authenticate legitimate medication. Co-founders Alonge and Amy Kao SOM ’17 believe their company, which has developed an inexpensive instrument to determine if a medication is real of fake, can counteract the growing industry of fake medicines — one that is now worth $200 billion.

“At the fundamental level, our mission is to save lives,” Kao said. “We want to make sure that every single person has access to authentic medication and that nobody ever has to worry about the quality of their medication that they’re taking — translating to more lives being saved.”

The company has already built a low-cost spectrometer that hundreds of pharmacies across Nigeria and Kenya have begun implementing. While many spectrometers cost $25,000 a piece, Kao said RxAll has decreased the instrument’s cost to around $1,000. She explained that the company has been able to lower costs by building its design, algorithm and equipment from the ground up.

On the customer side, once the pharmacy has obtained the RxAll spectrometer, a person who goes to her local pharmacy to buy the malaria treatment Malarone, for example, can simply scan the drug with the instrument. RxAll’s mobile application will then immediately determine whether the drug is real or counterfeit.

RxAll collects all the data that the spectrometer picks up, aggregating and using it to predict drug quality and to identify the pharmacies that are selling fake drugs, Kao said.

The startup then sells the data to pharmaceutical companies, which can determine which pharmacies are selling counterfeit medication and trace fake drugs to their sources. Currently, the team, which consists of seven employees, is focusing on expanding the data usage and analysis aspect of their business model, rather than increasing spectrometer sales.

The initial idea for RxAll was developed by Alonge, who took inspiration from his personal background and his interest in pharmacy. At the 2015 Healthcare Hackathon, he and Kao — one of his classmates at the School of Management — were able to assemble a team of developers, physicians and other people with experience in the pharmaceutical world. There, their ideas came to fruition as a supply chain company — a sort of “Amazon for authentic medication in Africa,” Kao said.

“At a very fundamental level, our company began with a very social mission and began with this commitment to solve this problem of people not getting authentic medication. We thought, ‘Let’s just manufacture the drug to make sure people are getting real medications,’” Kao said. “Then we started to think a little further. Now that we had the supply chain, how do we identify the fake drugs in the marketplace? So we created a spectrometer to identify which drugs are real and fake.”

The company got its initial funding from the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute Venture Creation Program in 2016. Along the way, it has received funding from the pharmaceutical company Merck and the InnovateHealth program at the School of Public Health. Alonge said the team is grateful both for the University’s support and for the time volunteered by undergraduates in Yale College.

“We’re continually thinking of ways to innovate — how can we improve upon the design of the spectrometer or the business model to push down the costs even more, and what are the creative ways in which we can reach more people and have more impact, breadth and scale?” Kao said.

Alonge said he envisions the company growing vertically beyond counterfeit drugs. It may eventually be able to test for counterfeit products in many consumer markets, such as food.

The next step for the product, Kao said, is to determine how to leverage the data collected from the spectrometer to identify more counterfeit medications in the emerging market, which spans their target of the Global South — Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

The company’s goal is to have one million households in developing countries using the device and platform at least once a week, testing every medication they buy, Alonge said.

“Our pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. is so regulated, but that’s just not the case in other parts of the world,” Kao said. “We want people to trust the medication that they’re receiving. That’s the ultimate vision that we’re trying to achieve.”

Amy Xiong | amy.xiong@yale.edu