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“Why are you doing deep tech for Africa?” 

The question from a venture capital investor in 2017 stunned Adebayo (“Ade”) Alonge and Amy Kao, co-founders of RxAll. The previous year they had  invented a handheld scanner for detecting counterfeit prescription drugs—an illicit, multibillion-dollar industry that kills an estimated 1 million people annually around the world and 100,000 in Africa. By providing their RxScanner to pharmacies and hospitals throughout the continent, they could save lives. 

Today more than 4,000 pharmacies in Africa use the RxAll Digital Infrastructure Platform, which consists of the RxScanner, Rxdelivered, and RxPay (embedded fintech for invoice financing), serving over 2 million people a month. 

“So many times, going through this journey, investors pushed us to change our business model or change our original mission of saving lives.”

Investors tried to steer Ade and Amy off this path, dismissing Africa as the wrong place for a deep tech startup. One investor would only back RxAll if it charged patients for each drug scan. How were people living on less than a dollar per day going to afford that? 

“So many times, going through this journey, investors pushed us to change our business model or change our original mission of saving lives,” says Amy.

Ade and Amy did not choose to solve the counterfeit drug problem randomly. 

Adebayo (“Ade”) Alonge
CEO and Founder, RxAll
Amy Kao
Co-Founder/CMO, RxAll

Amy, born in New Jersey to Taiwanese immigrants, grew up learning to play piano from her mother, a graduate of the Juilliard School. As a teenager, Amy learned that she would need to pay for college without parental support and started exploring different scholarship opportunities. She stumbled upon pageantry, entered New Jersey’s Junior Miss pageant without any experience and won. She took home the biggest check she had ever received. She found that in addition to winning cash at pageants, she could resell the gowns and accessories to pay for the text books she needed to graduate college. “The real-life concept of needing to hustle,” says Amy, “is ultimately what contributed to my entrepreneurial nature.” That hustle earned Amy financial independence and she graduated debt-free from Carnegie Mellon University.

“The real-life concept of needing to hustle, is ultimately what contributed to my entrepreneurial nature.”

After graduating, Amy joined Deloitte Consulting. On a trip abroad, Amy became sick from eating street food and took a medication from a local pharmacy. The drug landed her in a hospital on an IV drip. The doctor suspected it was a counterfeit. Amy assumed this was a one-off experience. But after arriving at the Yale School of Management in 2015, she learned otherwise from Adebayo.

Ade was born in Lagos, Nigeria to a family with a rich heritage. His father, an engineer, came from a line of military generals, and his mother from a family of commodity merchants. The Alonge family belonged to Lagos’s ethnic majority, the Yoruba, and practiced Christianity. Ade’s father moved the family to Kaduna, in north-central Nigeria, for a job promotion. When Ade was five, violence broke out between Christians and Muslims while his father was away on business. Ade, his mother, and his sister ran for their lives on foot. 

Adebayo (“Ade”) Alonge, CEO and Founder, RxAll

Safely back in Lagos, Ade excelled at academics and was accepted into a local boarding high school at age nine. He planned to become a doctor until a shattering experience his fourth year of school. Armed robbers broke into the Alonge household, and Ade and his sister hid in a bathroom. In the days following, Ade’s lungs filled with mucus for reasons that remain unclear. A doctor prescribed Ventolin tablets and Ade took two pills that night. Three weeks later, he awoke from a coma. The drug, which his father had bought from a local pharmacy, had been a counterfeit containing a dangerously high concentration of the sedative diazepam. 

Ade, against his father’s wishes, decided to become a pharmacist instead of a doctor. He was determined to solve the counterfeit drug crisis so no one else would have to go through his experience. After earning a degree in pharmacy in Nigeria, Ade launched a social impact business which sold medicines to wealthy Nigerians to subsidize safe drugs for low-income families. It caught the attention of the U.S. State Department, which sponsored Ade for a fellowship and master’s degree at the Yale School of Management.

During orientation at Yale in 2015, Ade and Amy met and bonded over their experiences with counterfeit drugs. The following year they won the Yale Health Hackathon with the concept for a handheld scanner that could authenticate drugs and spot counterfeits using spectroscopy. They recruited another co-founder, Wei Liu, a PhD student specializing in biophysical and analytical chemistry. 

With grants from Yale and elsewhere, the team founded RxAll and built a prototype of their scanner in a New Haven garage. Essentially, their scanner blasts a pill or vial of medicine with light, records the reflected wavelengths, and checks them against a proprietary database containing the spectral profiles of known drugs. If the label on the drug and the spectral profile match, it’s authentic. If they don’t match, the drug is flagged as counterfeit. The process takes 20 seconds and displays the results on a smartphone. 

Between 2016 and 2019, RxAll won big on the startup awards circuit. But  in meetings with VCs, they faced pressure to demonstrate a revenue model.  

Their break came in 2019 when RxAll won the Hello Tomorrow Global Challenge, a deep tech competition often sponsored by SOSV and judged by its venture partners. Duncan Turner, managing director of SOSV’s HAX program, was at the awards ceremony in Paris and encouraged RxAll to apply for HAX in Shenzhen. 

“The real-life concept of needing to hustle, is ultimately what contributed to my entrepreneurial nature.”

Amy Kao, co-Founder/CMO, RxAll

RxAll worked with HAX partner Garrett Winther and industrial design director Indra Sachdev to evolve their RxScanner. It needed to be more user-friendly and deal better with ambient light, which could throw off scans. After developing the improved version, they secured a manufacturer in Shenzhen to mass produce it. RxAll rebranded and launched a new website with the help of HAX creative director Vitaly Vyazovsky. 

After two-and-a-half months with HAX, RxAll had what it needed for continued growth. The team raised a $3.15 million funding round in July 2021.

Within 10 years, RxAll intends to be the digital infrastructure for hospitals and pharmacies across Africa. The Rxdelivered Marketplace, with affordable medications authenticated by the RxScanner, is driving their revenue growth in Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda. 

Going up against a billion-dollar unlawful industry is not for the faint of heart. For Ade and Amy, the anchor in their chaotic, globetrotting startup life is the strong co-founder relationship. “We’re friends first,” says Ade. “That’s the most important thing. I know Amy has my back. And I will always have Amy’s back. I can trust whatever she tells me.”

“Plus one to that,” says Amy.

By Richard Ellis
Photos by Mark Madeo and Matthew Guillory