The pharmaceutical industry has a reputation for being a bit of a dinosaur in terms of technological and innovative advancements. Traditionally, this industry has been slow to adopt new procedures. However, with a surge of growing tech startups, digital transformation that incorporates AI and blockchain and data-driven research and development over the last few years, pharma has undergone quite a revamp, and two innovative companies right here in Ontario are adding to it.



In 2015, in an effort to keep controlled substances secure, the government passed legislation that made narcotics reconciliation mandatory, meaning that pharmacies must conduct physical counts and reconciliation of all narcotics, controlled drugs and targeted substances regularly. (This means at least once every six months, and that the inventory count is retained in the pharmacy’s records for a two-year period in a readily retrievable format.) For big drugstore chains with access to the latest technical software, this wasn’t a huge leap. But for smaller pharmacies in the Greater Toronto Area who aren’t as tech-savvy, taking the time to both track and manually count narcotics is challenging. Equally challenging for independent pharmacies are the expenses and additional insurance requirements to have medications delivered to those who need them. These are problems that larger drug store chains don’t lose sleep over but that keep small pharmacies up at night. Thankfully, iApotheca Healthcare Inc., based in Peterborough, Ont., had the foresight to develop innovative technology to help independent pharmacies address these issues and give them a competitive edge.
In 2014, CEO Spencer Turbitt combined his extensive sales experience and family history in pharmacy with COO Rachelle Smerhy’s global copywriting experience in healthcare and alternative medicine; the two joined forces with CTO David Hallin, a full-stack Laravel and Go developer with experience in both pharmacy and hospitals. This dynamic trio founded iApotheca Healthcare, and their very first product was innovative software that helps pharmacy teams to track and report on their narcotics inventory in 80 percent less time: the Narcotics Reconciliation Module. With this software, pharmacists can schedule weekly counts, receive notifications about deadlines for reconciling specific narcotics and set up the frequency of the inventory counts to meet regulations.
Since then, iApotheca has created several additional software tools to assist pharmacies in their day-to-day operations, including their recently released EconoRoute Prescription Courier Network Software. “The EconoRoute Prescription Courier Network is making a big impact for smaller pharmacies in the Greater Toronto Area that previously didn’t have enough deliveries to justify the expense of hiring a delivery driver or paying for additional insurance,” says Smerhy. “With EconoRoute these pharmacies can build an efficient delivery service without the added expenses.”
Here’s how it works: The Econo- Route Courier Network provides the most optimal routes for deliveries which save the courier both time and fuel. It also enables pharmacies to track their packages in real-time (which helps to create an audit trail to comply with narcotics regulations) and receive upon- delivery payment from customers via Square integration.
From their inventory tracking software to their courier network and more, iApotheca Healthcare has empowered more than 1,000 independent pharmacies across Canada to offer same-day delivery and compete with larger eCommerce platforms. With the help of significant investor funding garnered in as little as two years, iApotheca has grown its team to make enhancements to its offerings and explore opportunities for expansion into additional markets.
“The response [to EconoRoute] has been great; we’ve got several pharmacies using both platforms, and we’re hearing regularly about how helpful it is in streamlining their delivery services,” Smerhy says. “We’ve also had several customers reaching out to give us information on what improvements we can make to the platform, which is part of the fun of releasing a new product. We always enjoy working with pharmacies to make our products fit life in the pharmacy better.”


The existence of rare diseases in this country is a bigger problem than you might think. It’s been estimated that there are roughly 7,000 rare diseases in Canada, and arguably the biggest challenge is the time it takes for these rare diseases to be diagnosed (on average, five to seven years). What often happens is that a patient is passed from family physician to specialist to specialist and so on, resulting in a patient with a potentially rare disease seeing as many as eight specialists before they receive a proper diagnosis.
Faster diagnosis for and therapeutic treatment of rare diseases is what inspired pharmaceutical company Takeda Canada — a Toronto-based company built from its global counterpart that has a history in innovative medicine that spans 237 years.
“At Takeda we’re trying to find solutions in how to streamline the screening and diagnosis of patients with rare diseases,” says Jefferson Tea, head of medical and scientific affairs. “That’s why in January 2022, we launched our Innovation Challenge. Our thought process was that perhaps there are technologies out there that can help us, and doctors, to accelerate the diagnosis of patients with rare diseases.”
Rare diseases can be a ticking time bomb with many discovered only when symptoms present themselves (which is often too late). Takeda launched its Innovation Challenge to accelerate partnerships for identifying new digital technologies and artificial intelligence solutions that could detect rare diseases much earlier and subsequently receive timely treatment.
“When we think of innovation, we have to think broadly,” Tea explains. “We could have simply formed an internal working group to brainstorm solutions, but I strongly believe that the solutions are out there and we need to work with external partners. And that’s what led to the idea of the Innovation Challenge. We knew that there were likely a lot of people or organizations, whether academia or companies, that have new tools or technologies that can help us with the challenges that Canada faces with regards to rare diseases.”
Takeda’s Canada-wide call for solutions was met with 24 submissions over a two-month period from technological companies, spin-offs from universities, university researchers and more. The winner was Toronto-based clinical discovery company Pentavere Research Group for their breakthrough, proprietary AI engine called DARWEN, which can accelerate the discovery of rare diseases in patients by combing through vast amounts of clinical text in electronic medical records and essentially cut through the clutter to flag patients at risk for a rare disease to spur early diagnosis and treatment. As the winner of the Innovation Challenge, Pentavere received funding to build a proof-of concept project.
In addition to their Innovation Challenge, Takeda is still very much focused on delivering novel medicines to target rare diseases (they’re looking forward to releasing four new products over the next couple of years) and in November 2022, Takeda Canada’s TAKHZYRO (lanadelumab) — the first approved monoclonal antibody for the treatment of the rare disease Hereditary Angioedema (HAE) — had received the 2022 Prix Galien Canada Innovative Product Award. This is the most prestigious award in the field of Canadian pharmaceutical research and innovation, something that Tea says Takeda is extremely proud of. “The Prix Galien Award is like the Nobel Peace Prize for our industry. It’s been fantastic to get recognition and reflects the impact that our novel therapies can have for rare disease patients.”

Photo Credit: iStock/cglade; iStock/suravikin; iStock/CHAIWATPHOTOS.

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