Article by Forbes: Trevor Clawson
When Raja Sharif established Farmatrust in 2017, he had a clear mission. Having seen at first hand the damage that could be done by counterfeit drugs, he intended to use technology to stem their distribution and sale.
“A relative of mine living overseas had been taking counterfeit drugs,” he recalls. “I thought, why can’t we do away with them by using blockchain technology.”
No one can deny the scale of the problem. According to the World Health Organisation, around 50% of drugs sold in developing countries are counterfeit. It’s a multi-billion dollar shadow industry that has—unsurprisingly— triggered a response from legitimate pharmaceutical companies and regulators. Witness a recent survey from Research and Markets suggesting that the market for fake drug testing devices will be worth $1.3 billion by 2021.
And as Sharif sees it, in the fight against counterfeiters, blockchain offers a means to track the sale and distribution of drugs using a combination of the distributed ledger technology that lies at its core, in tandem with smart contracts and A.I.-driven analysis.
Enthused by the potential of blockchain, Sharif—a trained barrister with wide experience working in the IT and telecoms sectors —set about creating a a platform that would allow pharmaceutical businesses to trace the flow of drugs from the manufacturing stage and along the distribution chain, while also enabling end-users to authenticate the products they receive by means of an app.
So is this the solution to a big problem? Well perhaps sometime in the future but for the moment, there are challenges to overcome. For one thing, any single blockchain solution would have to sign up a critical mass of industry players in order to make a significant impact on the fake pharma problem. Then, of course, there is the added complication that counterfeit drugs manufacturers sit outside the system.
So that begs a question. If stemming the flow of illegal drugs requires buy-in across the industry, how do you persuade individual industry players to adopt the technology?
Alternative Use Case
In the case of Farmatrust, the answer lies in creating an alternative use case. Yes, the technology may at some stage in the future succeed in combating illicit activity, but in the shorter-term, it allows individual companies—and also NGOs—to manage their affairs more efficiently.
As Sharif sees it, a distributed ledger system linked to an information dashboard allows organizations to know in real-time exactly what is happening along their distribution chains. Similarly, in a second but related use case, the same technology can be used to make the management of clinical trials more efficient.
So what does that mean in practice? Sharif cites the example of the potential turmoil caused by a no-deal Brexit – something that seems increasingly likely. Various studies have suggested that holdups on the U.K./E.U. border will lead to drugs shortages in Britain. In some cases, those shortages could cost lives. Sharif says the Farmatust solution can help drugs companies manage manufacturing and distribution to ensure market demand is met.
Sharif acknowledges that the marketing of any single blockchain-based system might be a tough sell, given that it’s still a little-understood segment of the technology universe, but the company has made progress. For instance, it has signed a partnership deal with pharmaceutical logistics and medical services company McKessons and the are others in the pipeline. “The system gives them the data they need to make data-driven decisions, “ says Sharif. The company is also in discussions with a number of governments.
There are of course many ways that a pharmaceutical company – or indeed an NGO, regulator or healthcare provider – might track activity on their supply chains, so why blockchain? Sharif, says the technology offers interoperability – making it easy to adopt – and incorruptibility.
And it’s those attributes that might just provide a foot in the door for blockchain companies. The technology has been feted as a potential solution to all sorts of problems, including the issue of maintaining a flow of goods across the post-Brexit Irish border. The problem being that such major projects may require buy-in from a lot of stakeholders and organizations that are independent of each other. One way forward for blockchain ventures is to use the technology as the basis for a system to gather and analyze data in real-time for very specific reasons while laying the groundwork for more wide-ranging solutions.