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Take Your Medicine: This $1.5 Billion Health Startup’s Smart Pills Keep Patients From Forgetting

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Are patients taking their medications correctly, and are the medicines working? A handful of digital health startups tries to make it easier to tell — say, by embedding a tracking system into pills they swallow.

Only 25% to 50% of patients worldwide take medications correctly, and in the U.S., roughly 125,000 people die annually from not correctly taking their prescriptions, according to a 2018 study led by Leah Zullig, a health services researcher at the Duke University School of Medicine.

Failure to take prescribed medicines also increases costs to the healthcare system, by about $300 billion annually, Zullig estimates. Jonathan Watanabe, an associate professor of clinical pharmacy at UC San Diego’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, says that number would likely be even higher if you included what it costs hospitals to treat symptoms that arise from improper medicine intake (for example, patients with high blood pressure who have strokes as a result of not taking their medicines)—more than $500 billion annually, or 16% of U.S. healthcare costs, he estimates.

READ MORE |Internet In Our Bodies?

For the most part, the responsibility has been in the hands of the patient. Think pill boxes marked with the days of the week, or their high-tech versions—apps, like Medisafe and CareClinic, that help users self-report their own intake and schedules. These reminder devices don’t go far enough, say some doctors, because they fail to address a very human fault that patients report as their primary reason for not taking their medication: forgetfulness.  

We Are Our Own Prince Charming

“We need to take responsibility for our own health and care, but when it comes to drug-taking and medication use, that may not be sufficient,” says Dr. Niteesh K. Chouhdry, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center for Healthcare Delivery Sciences at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. “We need to leverage these devices in a way that closes the loop—doctors to pharmacists to patients back to pharmacists.”

Proteus Digital Health, a Redwood City, California-based tech health startup, hopes to create that loop. Founded in 2004 by Andrew Thompson and Dr. George Savage, the company makes a 1 millimeter sensor—“the size of a poppy seed or grain of sand,” says Thompson—that is embedded in medications, which are then swallowed.

The sensor, made of “elements found in a typical diet,” including magnesium and copper, says Thompson, will turn on when it contacts a patient’s stomach acid. It then sends a signal a the palm-size patch that patients wear on their skin. The patch, which also tracks physiological signs like steps, rest and heart rate, then sends information to a smartphone app for patients and the desktop browser portal that doctors use.

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The idea for the system, called Proteus Discover, came to Thompson during an American Heart Association conference in 2003. Thompson, who had previously started two medical device companies with Savage, including the publicly traded FemRx, which was acquired by Johnson & Johnson for $22 million in 1998, noticed that none of the companies presenting at the conference were doing anything with digital technologies.

“Silicon and software was innovating every other industry at the time except for pharma,” Thompson says. So he brought his idea for a medicine that communicates with a computer to Savage.

“George looks at me and says, ‘That is the stupidest idea you’ve had in your entire life.’ And then we began to argue,” Thompson says.

In 2017, the FDA approved an antipsychotic drug with Proteus technology, the agency’s first-ever approval for a medicine with digital ingestion tracking system. Abilify MyCite, the drug made with Tokyo-based Otsuka Pharmaceutical, treats schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and Tourette syndrome.

The company has raised $420 million in venture capital funding from investors including Novartis Venture Fund and Kaiser Permanente Ventures at a $1.5 billion valuation. Otsuka, which has a special focus on mental health drugs, announced in October 2018 an $88 million investment in Proteus to continue developing other medications that use the tech-health venture’s ingestible sensors. More than 1,000 patients have used the pill-tracking system, amounting to 195,000 pill ingestions, says the company.

EtectRx, Keratin Biosciences

Other companies have sprung up in the drug delivery space, including etectRx, a Newberry, Florida, health-tech startup with a similar digital health system model. Instead of working with a pharmaceutical company to embed its sensors in a pill, etectRx creates an empty gelatin capsule with an embedded wireless sensor. Its capsule has not received FDA clearance yet, but it can be used in clinical studies that have been approved by the agency’s Institutional Review Board, a committee that reviews and monitors scientific research.

Keratin Biosciences (formerly Microchips Biotech and KeraNetics before the two merged in July 2018) wants to improve medication intake by getting rid of human error altogether. Instead of a pill, this Lexington, Massachusetts, company makes a microchip with hundreds of sealed compartments, each of which can store up to 1 milligram of a drug.

The chip, which originated in a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, can be activated by a wireless signal that triggers the compartments to release the drug, based on a preprogrammed dosing schedule.

Digital health startups must figure out how to get the new drug delivery methods they are delivering to patients and consumers in a scalable way, which will require collaboration and a commitment from Big Pharma. “The core thing we want the pharmaceutical industry to understand is that we want to integrate silicon software into the definition of their products in order to make information and data a part of what they do,” Thompson says.

READ MORE | Would You Seek Medical Care In Africa’s Public Sector?

Then there is the matter of consumer hesitance about swallowing hardware that records private activity. While these inventions are meant to help patients, the monitoring aspect has raised privacy concerns from consumer advocates who worry that the information will eventually be shared not just with doctors but with insurers who want to raise premiums or even employers who want to know what drugs a job candidate is taking.

“Security of the data is very important, but in medicine, privacy can be lethal,” Thompson argues. He says that the main issue is not so much privacy but whether companies make it clear to patients where their data is going. “People are happy to share information and data if they know and understand exactly what it is being used for.”

Proteus can claim its smart pills are effective, but it’s still early for most startups that aim to improve the way patients take their medicine.

“This is a tough problem to fix,” says Choudhry from Harvard. “It’s all about forgetfulness, and that is a complex and, frankly, normal behavior.”

-Angel Au-Yeung; Forbes Staff

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No Seat At The Global Table For Indigenous African Cuisine

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Gastronomic tourism based on African food could easily increase and create new value chains that unlock billions in untapped wealth for the continent, but what is stopping us?


Food and tourism are an integral part of most economies, globally. Food is undeniably a core part of all cultures and an increasingly important attraction for tourists. To satisfy their wanderlust, contemporary tourists require an array of experiences that include elements of education, entertainment, picturesque scenery and culinary wonders.  The link between food and tourism allows destinations to develop local economies; and food experiences help to brand and market them, as well as supporting the local culture and knowledge systems.

 This is particularly important for rural communities, where 61% of sub-Saharan Africans live, according to the World Bank last year. These communities have often felt the brunt of urbanization, which has resulted in a shift away from rural economies. If implemented effectively, Africa could get a piece of the gastronomic tourism pie, which was worth $8.8 trillion last year, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

World-renowned chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu and author of her self-published cookbook, Through the Eyes Of An African Chef. Picture: Motlaban Monnakgotla

However, there is currently very little public information to pique the interest of tourists about African food. World-renowned South African chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu sought to remedy this with her self-published cookbook, Through the Eyes Of An African Chef.

“I think where it was very clear to me that I needed to do something was when I went to cooking school. I trained at Christina Martin School of Food and Wine. I thought I was actually going to get training on South African food and, somehow, I assumed we were talking indigenous food.

 “I was shocked that we went through the whole year’s curriculum and we didn’t cover anything that I ate at home; we didn’t cover anything that my first cousins, who are Sotho, ate in Nelspruit (in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province); we didn’t cover anything that would come from eSwatini, which is where my mother is from,” Mqwebu says.

By self-publishing, she has ultimately contributed to a value chain that has linked local food producers and suppliers, which includes agriculture, food production, country branding and cultural and creative industries.

“I am a member of Proudly South African, not only my business, but the book as well. Part of the reason is that the cookbook was 100% published in South Africa. So, everybody who worked on the cookbook, and printing, was all in South Africa, which is something quite rare these days because authors have their books published abroad.”

The Proudly South African campaign is a South African ‘buy local’ initiative that sells her cookbook on their online platform as its production adheres to the initiative’s campaign standards. Self-publishing has allowed Mqwebu to promote her book for two years and to directly communicate with her audience in a way she thought was best, while exposing her to a vast community of local networks. She recalls her first step towards creating her own body of work.

Amadumbe gnocchi. Picture: Nompumelelo Mqwebu and Nicole Louw Photography

“I was in culinary school when I wrote the recipe for amadumbe (potato of the tropics) gnocchi. We were making gnocchi and I thought, ‘so why aren’t we using amadumbe because it’s a starch?’ and when I tasted it, I thought, ‘this could definitely work’. I started doing my recipes then.

 “And there was talk about, ‘we don’t have desserts as Africans’. I did some research and found we ate berries, we were never big on sugar to begin with. That’s why I took the same isidudu (soft porridge made from ground corn) with pumpkin that my grandmother used to make and that became my dessert. “I also found that when I went to libraries looking for indigenous recipes, I couldn’t really find something that spoke to me as a chef. I found content that looked like history books. It was not appealing. It was not something, as a chef, I could proudly present to another chef from a different part of the world, so I knew I had to write my book,” Mqwebu says about the award-winning recipe book that chronicles African cuisine.

Isidudu (soft porridge made from ground corn) with pumpkin. Picture: Nompumelelo Mqwebu and Nicole Louw Photography

Financial and health benefits

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, in 2018, the tourism sector “contributed 319 million jobs, representing one in 10 of all jobs globally and is responsible for one in five of all new jobs created in the world over the last five years. It has increased its share of leisure spending to 78.5%, meaning 21.5% of spending was on business.”

To narrow in on how lucrative food can be, the World Food Travel Association estimates that visitors spend approximately 25% of their travel budget on food and beverages. The figure can get as high as 35% in expensive destinations, and as low as 15% in more affordable destinations. “Confirmed food lovers also spend a bit more than the average of 25% spent by travelers in general.”

However, there is a widely-held view that the African continent is not doing enough to maximize its potential to also position itself as a gastronomic tourism destination, using its unique edge of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS).

“We are not a culinary destination and we will never be while we are still offering pasta as the attraction for our tourists,” Mqwebu says.

Dr George Sedupane, who is the Coordinator of the Bachelor of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems program in South Africa’s North-West University, echoes Mqwebu’s sentiments.

“I often cringe when I go to conferences and there are guests from all over the world and we serve them pasta. Why would they come from Brazil to eat pasta here? They can have pasta in Italy. Why don’t we serve them umngqusho (samp and beans)?

Umngqusho (samp and beans). Picture: Nompumelelo Mqwebu and Nicole Louw Photography

“We need to be creating those experiences around our culture. We are failing to capitalize on our strengths. There is a lack of drive to celebrate what we have,” says Sedupane, who also teaches modules and supervises research in indigenous health and nutrition.

Writer and historian Sibusiso Mnyanda says current innovations in African food technology are born out of necessity, rather tourism and cultural ambitions.

“Food security is becoming an issue that is leading to IKS around farming being prioritized. In Nigeria, they are innovating dry season farming, because of deforestation and soil being de-cultivated. 

“So those indigenous knowledge strategies are being used in countries where it is a necessity and where there are enough advances related to the fourth industrial revolution. The traditional ways of producing food are not only much more organic, they are also crop-efficient,” Mnyanda says.

Nigeria may have inadvertently innovated a health solution related to colon cancer through its diet. Sedupane tells FORBES AFRICA an anecdote.

“There was a study where the colons of an African country that did not consume a lot of meat was compared to Europeans. The Africans had a much better profile as a result and there are people who want to buy African stool to get that kind of rich bacteria, that you get on an African plant-based diet.”

Dr George Sedupane, who is the Coordinator of the Bachelor of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Picture: Supplied

The study Sedupane is referring to was conducted in Nigeria and it states that: “Nigeria showed the average annual incidence of colorectal cancer was 27 patients per year. This shows that even if it seems that incidence rates are increasing in Nigeria, such rates are still about one-tenth of what is seen in the truly developed countries.”

In a bid to find reasons for this rarity of colon and rectal cancer, the study concluded that, among other reasons, the protective effects of Nigeria’s starch-based, vegetable-based, fruit-based, and spicy, peppery diet, and geographical location which ensures sunshine all year round, played a role in the country’s colon health.

Interestingly, it seems the potential value of African food could not only be based on what goes in but what also comes out as healthy faecal matter is big business globally. In 2015, The Washington Post published that one could potentially earn $13,000 a year selling their poop. 

The American-based company OpenBiome has been processing and shipping frozen stool to patients who are very sick with infections of a bacteria called C.difficile. It causes diarrhea and inflammation of the colon, leaving some sufferers house-bound. “Antibiotics often help, but sometimes, the bacteria rears back as soon as treatment stops. By introducing healthy faecal matter into the gut of a patient (by way of endoscopy, nasal tubes, or swallowed capsules), doctors can abolish C. difficile for good… And yes, they pay for healthy poop: $40 a sample, with a $50 bonus if you come in five days a week. That’s $250 for a week of donations, or $13,000 a year,” the publication stated.

Sedupane is of the view that a diet which includes indigenous foods could vastly improve one’s quality of life.

He says small changes could be made, such as including more of indigenous greens, namely sorghum and millet, to breakfast. The grains are gluten-free and produce alkaline which boosts the pH level of fluids in the body and reduces acidity.

Moringa fruit which is an African superfood. Picture: Getty Images

“Moving to our legumes, we have indlubu (Bambara groundnut) which is very rich and helps in the secretion of serotonin in the brain. This so important nowadays with the increase of depression. It’s easy to digest, and is great for cholesterol and moderating blood sugar,” Sedupane says.

 Mnyanda is also of the view that food is imperative to health and medicinal properties. He says traditional healers primarily use natural herbs in their practice. “These are used in pain relief and healing. Things like cannabis, camphor, African potatao and red carrots. So, food is not just used for nutritional purposes.”

Other African superfoods include, Baobab fruit, Hibiscus, Tamarind, Kenkiliba, Amaranth, Moringa and pumpkin leaves. 

Cultural and historical benefits

Gastronomic tourism also includes the promotion of heritage sites that are known to revolve around dishes that are of historic importance. They enhance the travel experience, they encourage the acquisition of knowledge and a cultural exchange.

There is a unanimous view that vast amounts of knowledge have been lost to history and there is a huge knowledge gap in African societies as a result of colonization and urbanization.

“Part of the colonial agenda was to make sure food security did not belong to indigenous groups. Therefore, archiving of these knowledge systems was not a priority. Especially during industrialization, where people moved from their villages to the city you found that the knowledge got left behind,” Mnyanda says.

Abathwa (the San people) hunting. Picture: Getty Images

He offers a contemporary example of how modernization continues to push African practices to the fringes: “To this day, abathwa (the San people) hunt their meat, but you find that because of changing agricultural practices and land reform on the Kruger National Park, they are being forced to move into the cities and industrial areas, therefore they are no longer able to practice their culture of hunting. As a result, their diet is changing.” Sedupane shares the view that the fundamentals of farming and astrology have also been exiled from public knowledge.

“The fundamentals of IKS were based on the understanding of the laws of nature – how and when things were done. Harvest cycles were linked with understanding astrology. They would not harvest until certain stars were visible in the sky. There was a dependence on nature.

“With industrialization, rather than working with nature, humans are seen as being above, as controlling, as directing it. The natural cycle is often tempered with rather than trying to work with it.”

Not all is lost however. There are historical practices that have stood the test of time and continue to be a part the few foods that are internationally associated with South Africa. Mqwebu says that, “historically, we ate more plants than meat because our ancestors had to hunt and the game back then was not tame. So, there were no guarantees that you would return with meat. And that’s where things like umqwayiba (biltong) come from. They had to preserve the meat, because wasting was not part of the culture”.

Umqwayiba (biltong). Picture: Getty Images

According to a 2015 exploratory research project conducted under the guidance of research institute Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society director Professor Melville Saayman, biltong contributes more than R2.5 billion ($163 million) to the South African economy.

Perhaps, like the faecal transporting company, Africa will soon realize the ‘wasted’ opportunity and that there is loads of money to be made in gastronomic tourism for all its inhabitants, whether they are rural or urban, technological or indigenous.

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Potential Cases Of Vaping-Related Illnesses Are Climbing

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The number of potential vaping-related illness incidents under investigation by health federal authorities keeps climbing, as officials narrow their search on counterfeit vaping products, according to a report from the Washington Post.

READ MORE | Is Vaping Really Helping You Quit Traditional Tobacco Cigarettes?

  • The Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control said Friday they are investigating 215 potential cases of respiratory illness reported after use of e-cigarettes across 25 states. That’s up from 153 last week.
  • Health officials say patients reported a gradual start to symptoms, such as breathing difficulty, shortness of breath and chest pain before hospitalization. Some cases reported vomiting, diarrhea, fevers or fatigue.
  • According to the Washington Post, the investigation is focusing on counterfeit or black-market products that use potentially mislabeled solvents that consumers buy themselves.
  • The announcement comes a week after the first vaping-related illness death was reported in Illinois. 

Key Background: Although scientists are still unsure of vaping’s long-term health impact, most believe that e-cigarettes are a less dangerous nicotine source than tobacco cigarettes. The CDC recommends that all nonsmokers stay away from vaping.

The CDC warned users Friday of buying e-cigarette products off the street or adding any substances to products that are not intended by the manufacturer.

-Rachel Sandler; Forbes

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Tasty Vegan Options: Consumed By Healthy Eating

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The restaurant market still hungers for healthy options. This entrepreneur is feeding that need, serving earth-conscious customers and gym junkies.  

Her desperation for a healthy meal fueled the fire for business.

Leigh Klapthor, 31, couldn’t find enough eateries that sold healthy food that was not bland, so decided to start her own.

“It is no fun to go out with friends and you are always the girl with the green salad,” she says.

“I wanted to find a way where being healthy is not such a chore and I also wanted for it to be affordable.”

Klapthor, who dropped out of a course in marketing communications at the University of Johannesburg, ditched a job in corporate marketing to pursue her passion for food.

A patron at Sprout Café. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

In 2017, she started Sprout Café at the Stoneridge Centre in Edenvale in Johannesburg with a loan she received from her husband’s business and money that was given to them as a wedding gift.

“Everybody underestimates what everything will end up costing [when starting a new business]. In my mind, I thought R150,000 ($10,588) would work. I thought I would get my shop fitting and everything done and in the first month we would be able to pay salaries with the money we make,” says Klapthor.

But she soon realized the unforeseen challenges faced by many entrepreneurs. She had to eventually pump in a capital of R350,000 ($24,706) to start the venture.

“So I had a couple of life lessons at the beginning. I had to end up using our savings but I didn’t mind having to do that because I trusted and believed in the vision.” 

But though she did, the banks did not because they often declined all her loan applications.

 “I think there are so many young black and enthusiastic individuals that have brilliant ideas and vision but the investment capital is not there. Though I do not have the capital as well to assist them, I would say keep going because the vision is greater,” Klapthor says.

Sprout Café offers health food, light meals, vegan food, and vegetarian and ketogenic diet food.

With her corporate marketing skills, she advertised her food on social media and gained a lot of traction.

“I want to create food on Instagram and people are like, ‘oh my God, I want to eat that’ and when they come into the store, it is the same deliverable they receive,” she says.

Sprout Café turns over R3 million ($211,677) annually and has 10 employees. 

After only two years of business, she has recently opened a second branch in the heart of the busy Moove Motion Fitness Club in Sunninghill in Johannesburg.

“There are people that are on specific diets and there is no one that is giving these people food. There is no one that is saying, vegan people want to be healthy too. They are making a conscious decision to preserve the environment and preserve their health and they are making these decisions but there is no one that is there to accommodate them.”

Klapthor says that the world is moving towards a plant-based lifestyle and she believes that many have recently caught on to that idea recently. 

Trend translator Bronwyn Williams of Flux Trends,  reiterates Klapthor’s views on how the world is adopting healthier habits. She believes that Generation Z is choosing good, clean fun the most.

“Yes, South Africa is not exempt from the global movement towards more locally-sourced and earth-friendly products and packaging,” Williams says.

However, Williams believes that because 64.2% of the South African population still lives in poverty, clean and organic food still remains costly for the majority of people.

“That said, unfortunately, earth-friendly consumer options remain a luxury that only the upper middle class can really afford to support and enjoy… certified organic, eco-friendly products tend to cost far more—up to 40% more than ‘regular’ packaged produce, it would be disingenuous to say that what the market wants is locally-sourced, earth-first produce when the majority of South Africans are struggling just to put any food on the table,” Williams says.

‘Every day, you should be able to eat a Sprout meal without having to feel any kind of guilt and shame,’ Leigh Klapthor says. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

Though Klapthor knows more people are opening healthy-eating establishments because they see that it is a trend, she believes that they need to be in touch with the reality of an ordinary person’s life and consider the cost implications.

“You can’t charge someone R150 ($10.59) for a Beyond Meat burger and expect her to come back tomorrow for the same burger. People are tight with their money and they work hard for it, they do not want to let go, for instance, of R500 ($35.29) in three days,” Klapthor says.

“We want to provide a healthy lifestyle, something that is consistent and that people can live through, and not just a treat-themselves-to at the end of the month. Every day, you should be able to eat a Sprout meal without having to feel any kind of guilt and shame.”

Obviously, it is a concept that has worked and keeps her business healthy as well.

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