February 16, 2014      

The antidote to wait-filled, frustrating pharmacy visits

We first encountered pharmacyBots in our article on Swisslog?s Automated Tablet Packaging System at the Medical Center at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). See: PharmacyBot: Miracle Rx for Drug Errors.

It was only a matter of time that Swisslog’s robot pharmacists, operating at places like that San Francisco medical center–with over 350,000 error-free prescriptions dispensed–would be launched into the retail pharmacy business, just as startup PillPack is demonstrating in 30 states across the country.

pillpack robot

VENTUREBEAT & COOLHUNTING: Backed up by $4M in venture and angel funding, PillPack announced its official launch this February. Company founders Elliot Cohen and TJ Parker joined forces with the IDEO (Boston) design team to redefine how consumers engage with their pharmacy.

The collaboration focused on making sure that every moment customers interact with PillPack, from signing up for the service online to using its product daily, was straightforward and reassuring.


The company, which has offices in Manchester, NH, and Somerville, MA., raised $3.5M of the $4M last summer in a Series A round led by Atlas Venture and joined by Founder Collective.

Earlier, PillPack graduated from the May 2013 TechStars class in Boston and raised angel funding of $550,000.

Parker, the CEO and co-founder of the 11-person company, grew up in the pharmacy business. He didn?t invent the idea of multi-pill packaging, Swisslog did. But using it in a consumer-facing pharmacy is a new concept, he says.

Founder Collective managing partner Eric Paley said he expects PillPack to make its brand and service a household name, including through the creation and launch of mobile apps, which could help people manage their meds and health regimens in new ways.

Paley believes the company has a competitive advantage due to its licensing progress, its team?which includes both experienced software and pharmacy professionals?and the sophistication of its back-end systems, used in part to ensure pharmacists are reviewing every roll of pills sent, and that the pills inside are always correct.

Death by medicine

The errors in human prescription dispensing are appalling?and frightening. An estimated 450,000 preventable medication-related adverse events occur in the U.S. every year. The Office of National Drug Control Policy reported to the Washington Post that as many as 5 percent of the 5 billion prescriptions filled each year are incorrect.

In fact, prescription drugs cause most of the more than 26,000 fatal overdoses each year, says Leonard Paulozzi of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A study published in the journal Medical Care found that as the number of prescriptions pharmacists filled each hour increased, so did the risk that customers would walk away with the wrong medicine or with medicine that might interact harmfully with another of their prescribed drugs.

The report found ?the typical pharmacist filled about 14 prescriptions per hour. With each additional one, the risk of dispensing a potentially harmful drug went up by 3 percent. At some pharmacies, almost 10 percent of prescriptions filled were potentially problematic.?

According to the National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention, it is estimated that nearly 1.5M people are injured (100,000 fatalities) in the United States every year through medication or prescription errors.

It?s being tabbed as ?death by medicine? and the costs to society are more than $136B annually?greater than the total cost of cardiovascular or diabetic care.

Overwhelmingly today, it?s a human hand that fills the over 5 billion annual prescriptions (averaging over 14 prescriptions per capita in the U.S.), which, in turn, is overwhelming pharmacists.

Compounding the situation, a USA TODAY investigation found evidence of corporate policies, especially in large drug chains, encouraging pharmacists to fill hundreds of prescriptions daily and rewarding fast work.

Are the PillPack robots the answer?

With over 30M Americans taking more than five medications a day, the initial aim of PillPack was to end at-home sorting errors. According to Parker, a second–generation pharmacist, “When we first started working on PillPack, our ambition was to make the end to end process of managing multiple medications simple.”

Parker first met his co-founder Elliot Cohen at MIT and shortly after they began Hacking Medicine, which he refers to as “a series of weekend-long hackathons designed to bring together clinicians, engineers and designers to fix problems in healthcare.”

They initially pitched PillPack at a weekend hackathon at Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston) October of 2012.

Part of the revolution that PillPack hopes to deliver is the simplified, yet highly organized, two–week roll of medications. Tear-off packets contain not only your pills for the day, but they are broken down by the time of day at which you’re supposed to take them.

Through innovative package design, modern technology and personalization, PillPack removes the counting and sorting process and makes medication safer.

The other part of the revolution are the error-free, tireless pharmacy robots from Swisslog that fill every prescription.

The combination of the two together is what Parker, Cohen and their assorted investors hope will topple the present-day model seen at most any Walgreens or CVS…or until the bigboy chains get their own pharmacyBots.