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Business Observer Thursday, Apr. 1, 2021 2 weeks ago

Backed by $23 million, startup tackles pharmacy sector

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Tech health care firm seeks to capitalize on the digital transformation of how people take prescription medications. It’s scored some early victories.
by: Elizabeth Djinis Contributor

Put the name of a medication into Google — say, “Can you take Advil...?” — and the predictive text will quickly fill up: “Can you take Advil and Tramadol together?” 

There’s a reason people are searching how two drugs interact. More than half of Americans take at least one prescription medication regularly. On average, they take four daily, according to a 2017 Consumer Reports survey. But how many truly understand how their regimen works? 

The answers to those questions used to come from a pharmacist. But like many other industries, the traditional role of a pharmacist is being upended by technology. One big example: In 2018, Amazon paid $753 million for online pharmacy PillPack, which delivers medications straight to a customer’s door packaged by day.

‘We’ve created a market for pharmacists to operate at the peak of their clinical capacity, which drives them to us.’ Clayton Walberg, Aspen RxHealth

Tampa-based Aspen RxHealth — also relying on advanced technology — senses an opportunity to elevate the role a pharmacist in the rapidly changing industry landscape. Rather than mailing a confusing medication straight to the front door with little instruction, Aspen RxHealth provides a one-on-one consultation meant to empower the patient and pharmacist alike. 

In doing so, the firm aims to enable pharmacists, is clients, to use the full scope of their clinical skills by matching patients with those pharmacists through phone consultations. In other words, Aspen’s model is to put pharmacists in front of the consumer when many companies are taking pharmacists out of the equation entirely. This is especially relevant for patients who take between 10 and 15 medications a day or see myriad doctors each prescribing different medications.

One key to Aspen’s model is the advanced algorithms it uses to match pharmacists with patients, based on social and clinical factors. So if a patient, say, is a first-generation Mandarin speaker with congestive heart failure living in Queens, N.Y., they could be matched with a pharmacist who speaks Mandarin, lives in Queens and has a specialty accreditation in their ailment. 

From the patient side, Aspen RxHealth’s pharmacist consultations look like a simple phone call — an advantage when serving the Medicare population, who might be deterred by yet another difficult-to-use app. From the pharmacist side, the Aspen app offers a list of potential consultations for each login, ranked by an algorithm for how close of a fit the pharmacist is to the patient. Once the pharmacist selects a patient, the app walks them through the patient’s medications, issues and relevant questions. Aspen collects a fee from health insurance companies working on behalf of pharmacists and patients.  

Aspen spent much of 2018 and 2019 on product engineering and beta testing, tweaking things while operating on a small-scale with early adopting large health plan clients. In 2020, the main focus was commercialization, Aspen Chief Commercial Officer Clayton Walberg says. 

Walberg says revenue has grown fivefold from 2019 to 2020; he declines to disclose specific figures. Aspen started out in two states in late 2019. They have since expanded their community to more than 5,000 pharmacists working in 50 states with more than six figures of patients, Walberg says. 

Aspen also recently picked up a big victory, with a $23 million Series B funding capital raise led by Bessemer Venture Partners. Bessemer has previously invested in Yelp, Shopify and LinkedIn, among others. Other investors in Aspen include health care company Novartis’ digital venture fund and health insurance provider Humana.

Walberg says the firm proved itself to investors in three ways. First, it showed it could deliver better quality and a better service faster, partially by harnessing gig economy employees who offered more flexibility. Second, the company’s services were cost-effective for health plans.

But here’s what Walberg says is the most important: “We’ve created a market for pharmacists to operate at the peak of their clinical capacity, which drives them to us.”

Up next? The firm plans to expand its lines of business within health insurance and also growing its line of products.

One new product is focused on the process of a patient leaving an acute facility, like a hospital, to a secondary facility, like their home or skilled nursing. This new program will have a pharmacist check in with the patient once they leave the hospital to ensure they are on the “best possible regimen and safest possible regimen,” Walberg says.

Aspen also plans to work with patients who are prescribed specialty, high-cost drugs for very specific chronic diseases, such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Its pharmacists will then help patients adhere to the protocol for those medications and work with them throughout various points during their treatment. 

“The entire purpose of the funding that we received right now was on the basis that the organization has a product that is sustainable, the organization has a product that drives results, [and] the organization has a product that can scale,” Walberg says. “Now we need to invest in that actual scaling portion of the business.” 

(This story was updated to reflect the correct timing of when Novartis’ digital venture fund Humana invested in Aspen RxHealth.)

 

 

 

 

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