Zoë Barry’s entrepreneurial skills go back a long way, which is fairly impressive considering the ZappRx CEO is 32 years old. Barry says when she was a kid, she taught herself how to make balloon animals and would sell them to other kids in Central Park. “It was quite a lucrative business I might add,” she notes.
The fascination with entrepreneurship didn’t end there. After a stint on Wall Street and a stop at Athenahealth, Barry founded ZappRx at the age of 26. “I didn’t want to be the 2,000th or 3,000th employee at a company that had already IPO’d. My risk appetite was much greater than that. “
She was inspired to start ZappRx after a family member got really sick and couldn’t access a key medication. ZappRx, which has raised more than $40 million and has accumulated a number of high-level health system customers, offers a software platform that streamlines medication prescription and prior authorization for specialty providers.
Barry spoke with Chief Executive about Amazon’s foray into the online pharmaceutical world, how healthcare suffers from “Old Male Doctor Syndrome,” and advice she has for other young CEOs. Below are excerpts from that interview.
What are your thoughts on Amazon buying PillPack?
I can’t say too much because I’m under [confidential disclosure agreement] with a couple key players, but at a high-level what I’ll say is healthcare needs more innovation and I personally couldn’t be happier that really innovative companies are coming after healthcare. But they’re coming after healthcare from all angles. I think Amazon is probably one of the most visible ones but…you know, I was just sharing a story with people that when I founded ZappRx and we had this crazy idea for an app that had your prescription and your payment information. We’re going to revolutionize pharmacy checkout. Investors used to say that was crazy. No one was going to put their health information on a phone. No one is going to put their financial information on the phone. They said you’d have to take the Venn diagram of the overlap of either group and find your target user base, and that I was crazy.
And I think back to that, and I think back to when I finally did get the money together to build the beta version of the app and get pharmacy and doctor [users] lined up. And we went to launch the pilot in 2013 and there was no Wi-Fi in the back of the store. And we were going to have to buy Wi-Fi for the back of a pharmacy so that patients could continue to use their smartphones, which is crazy to think about now in 2018, but that was just five years ago…Healthcare is reactive not proactive. There’s going to be more innovation that’s going to come from all angles. I think Amazon has the clout and is one of the most valuable companies in the world. So, they’re looking at healthcare like low-hanging fruit, and I welcome it.
So, you guys are working with some of the big academic medical centers. Is that your main customer base is the provider side? Obviously, you’re, kind of, on both ends with the prescription and the medication side. But is most of your customer base coming from the provider side?
Yes, we call that our user base. Providers, in my mind, are the top of the spigot. It’s where a prescription starts and is generated. We make our software currently free to providers. Early on, it was free to pharmacies. But you then evolve the business model, as part of the startup shtick where you can’t price to where you want to be at scale. You have to build the product, get some users, iterate, build more features, drive the adoption, and eventually get to an inflection point where you can start turning on the revenues. We’re really the platform that specialists use to prescribe a specialty drug. And we send those clean and accurate prescriptions to the pharmacies. So, we’re working with a lot of academic medical centers and large private practices.
What are the big challenges that you’re facing? There’s obviously a lot of red tape in an industry like healthcare, a lot of roadblocks, a lot of silos. I mean, is this something that you guys have to work around or is the technology able to break through?
Well, I think, one of the things that gets us out of the gate was to put all the drugs on one platform and create consistent workflows [regardless of the drug or disease], it’s the same workflow every time for the providers. And there was a lot of early conversations when we started rolling this out that pharma companies came to us and said, “How much do I have to pay to make this exclusive to my drugs?” And I think the biggest challenge is not succumbing early to revenue that’s very tantalizing and is a potential lifeblood of a startup. You have to hold out and build the right thing that the market actually needs if you want to build a company that’s going to be disruptive at scale as opposed to something that’s going to solve a quick little niche and get taken out early by a user customer.
What about the challenges of being CEO and building a business?
One of my biggest challenges [is] being very young. I founded ZappRx when I was 26, turning 27. I did not have my MD or PhD or MBA. So, I had no fancy letters to go by my signature. MPH is another one. I sometimes joke that healthcare suffers from OMDS, “Old Male Doctor Syndrome,” and I wasn’t going to be able to change any of that. And I wasn’t going to wait to start ZappRx once I was able to get some sort of fancy [degree] under my belt. So I’ve had to take something that’s my Achilles heel and turn it into my greatest asset, which is just recognizing that this is a challenge. This is the reality of the market.
So I’ve invited doctors with me to come to the meetings or setup the meetings. And so, you know, a doctor would say, “This is Zoe. She’s the founder of ZappRx. She’s building this great product. I believe in her. I believe in the company. You should take a meeting with her.” And that would just serve to get me to the door, and then of course, I had to walk through the door. But it immediately made me credible in the eyes of the customer, the user, or the investor. Anyone who was on the other side really saw that I was basically a trusted source.
What advice do you have for other young CEOs from your experience with ZappRx?
Zoe: I would say just be brutally honest. Don’t try to sugarcoat it and say, “Oh, you know, it’s hard because…” insert your weakness. And, “It’s unfair because…” insert whatever [challenge you face]. I think just be realistic and don’t get emotional about it. Figure out how to turn your Achilles heel into your greatest asset.
I think back to doing our Series A financing, and Jeremy Levin who’s a former CEO of Teva Pharmaceutical, he did the entire road show campaign with me for the Series A. He met with all the investors, helped me setup the meetings, leveraged his network, and then after the Series A joined our board. And he had lived this problem with specialty drugs at Teva. They’ve got a couple of products and knew how challenging it was to get drugs to patients. It’s almost like you win the clinical trial battle, and then the battle starts again with trying to get the drugs to the patients. And it’s really frustrating. And there has to be a better way.
You know, today, it’s a $300 billion market that floats on the back of fax machines. But I was able to get somebody who had lived the problem, who came with me, and boosted my credibility in a short period of time. And it completely took away from what had been my biggest con, which was my age and my experience.