Wits graduates awarded R100k in start-up capital for pharmacy innovation

Wits graduates awarded R100k in start-up capital for pharmacy innovation

  • Two Wits graduates have landed a massive award of R100 000 to get their pharmacy innovation off the ground
  • Their device allows for the rapid and accurate counting of capsules and pills so they can be dispensed to patients
  • The pair won the top prize as part of the Prospector@WITS course run by Wits Enterprise

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Wits Pharmacy graduates, Mbuso Thwala and Mpho Maake, were awarded seed funding for their automated, antimicrobial-surface coated pill-dispensing innovation, Ra-Pill.

Ra-Pill is an automated, digital small-scale, countertop, tablet and capsule counter for pharmacies. It assists in the rapid and accurate counting of tablets/capsules dispensed to patients and reduces the risk of human error and the potential for contamination in the dispensing process through self-cleaning mechanisms.

Wits graduates, R100k, start-up capital, pharmacy innovation
The Ra-Pill device counts and sorts pills quickly. Photo credit: Supplied
Source: UGC

Thwala and Maake secured the top prize of R100 000 in seed funding as part of the Prospector@WITS course run by Wits Enterprise. The Ra-Pill innovation trumped five other pitches with its novel self-cleaning mechanism, laser counting accuracy, and antimicrobial coating.

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This achievement builds on the success of the initial conceptualisation and prototype development of Ra-Pill, from their BPharm 3 project for the PharmApprentice programme. The initial Ra-Pill student group, comprising Mbuso Thwala, Mpho Maake, Zinitha Mahlangu, Nabeelah Lambat and Salehah Moola, received second place in 2019. The PharmApprentice programme is implemented by the Division of Pharmacy Practice (Ms Stephanie Leigh-de Rapper, Ms Rubina Shaikh, Mr Andrew Jones, Dr Mahumane, Ms Zelna Booth, Mr David Bayever), in partnership with Aspen Pharmacare to facilitate pharmaceutical business leadership development and a growth mindset for entrepreneurship and innovation in pharmacy.

Since early 2019, during the PharmApprentice programme, Ra-Pill’s development has been a collaborative effort, demonstrating Wits’ emphasis on nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship. For example:

The self-cleaning aspect of the device was proposed by Prof. Pradeep Kumar and Mr David Bayever, from the Wits Department of Pharmacy Faculty of Health Sciences.

  • Wits Enterprise, through adjudicator assistance and provision of a lecture on pitching skills and intellectual property searching.
  • Ms Zelna Booth introduced Ra-Pill to Dr Michael Lucas in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, who had just won the prestigious Prix Hubert Tuor Innovation Award in Switzerland for his Antimicrobial Coating Technology, as part of his PhD with Prof. Sandy van Vuuren (Department of Pharmacy).
  • Lucas provided inputs on how the Ra-Pill design would facilitate the efficient coating of the device.
  • Financial support from the Wits Department of Pharmacy and Aspen Pharmacare enabled the purchase of the materials needed for the 3D printing of the Minimum Viable Product prototype.

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Maake and Thwala, decided to take the innovation further and applied to participate in the Prospector@WITS course this year. The course exposes researchers and postgraduate students to innovation and entrepreneurship, focuses their attention on better appreciating end users’ needs, and raises awareness of the journey towards successfully commercialised products and services based on their research.

The Prospector@WITS course provides an introduction to key tools – such as unpacking the value proposition through the Business Model Canvas – and directs participants to engage in structured engagements with end users and stakeholders by using Design Thinking and Customer Discovery methodologies.

Both Maake and Thwala, who graduated from Wits with a Bachelor of Pharmacy degree in 2020, agree that the PharmApprentice programme geared them toward success in the Prospector@WITS course, where PharmApprentice adjudicators (both academic staff of the Department of Pharmacy, as well as external entrepreneurs, experts and practicing pharmacists), provided comments to improve their innovation:

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Professor Yahya Choonara, Chair and Head of the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology at Wits, says: “PharmApprentice is a new curriculum innovation on our BPharm degree at Wits – a first on the African continent – to build the spirit of innovative thinking in solving real-world challenges.”

Dr Stavros Nicolaou, Group Senior Executive: Strategic Trade at Aspen Pharmacare, has supported the PharmApprentice programme from its inception, through the provision of a series of commercialisation lectures, sponsorship of prizes and entrepreneurial mentorship.

He says: “It lays the foundation for aspiring pharmacists to embrace entrepreneurship. Aspen is committed to youth empowerment and economic growth, and the PharmApprentice programme builds business capability among pharmacy graduates.”
Ms Anne Gabathuse, Senior Innovation Support Manager at Wits Enterprise, says: “We congratulate the Ra-Pill team on their success so far. They earned their spot as runner-up in the 2019 PharmApprentice Programme and naturally progressed to participate in the Prospector@WITS course. The team clearly benefitted from the Prospector course, and really impressed the Prospector@WITS pitching panel. It is also exciting to see that within the University there is a continuum from entrepreneurship development at undergraduate level to the development of commercialising products that draw on the rich and diverse research conducted at Wits.”

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Maake was surprised that their innovative idea won. ‘‘I did not expect it but I was super happy about it!”

The budding entrepreneurs plan to be making a profit within the next two years. However, they are realistic about what it will take.

“We feel like we just finished the easy part. Now the hard work begins; we have to justify the funding to the investors,” says Thwala.

With support from Wits Enterprise and the Wits Department of Pharmacy, the next step is to secure further funding and a partner to help them build a working prototype.

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Source: Briefly News

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