Joella Almeida’s resume spans the e-commerce and payment industries, but she always knew she wanted to work in healthcare. It was in his blood, or, at the very least, in his extended family. “My grandfather was a pharmacist, my mother-in-law is a pharmacist,” she says. “I’ve sort of rubbed shoulders with pharmacists all my life.”
Between her and co-founder Michael Do, also a pharmacist, MedEssist was born in 2018 and entered the University of Toronto’s Health Innovation Hub accelerator the following year. The tech company helps brick-and-mortar pharmacies offer their services through an accessible online portal. These days, pharmacies do much more than sell vitamin supplements and fill prescriptions – they can prescribe “minor ailments,” ranging from the flu to migraines in some provinces, without a doctor.
Ontario’s new list of minor ailments for next year includes sprains, uncomplicated urinary tract infections and hemorrhoids – and the new rules couldn’t come sooner. With nursing burnout and uncompetitive compensation pushing Ontario’s medical system beyond its limits, Ontarians seeking treatment need every avenue they can access.
A fierce debate is also raging around the involvement of private medical companies in Ontario’s broader healthcare system — but Almeida says Canadians are looking for more options to get the help they need.
Most of your career has been spent in e-commerce, marketing and strategic partnerships. What made you decide to run a pharmaceutical technology company?
I’ve been in startups in the payment industry, then in e-commerce — but I was also one of the first 2,000 Shopify Partners in Canada. When you’re part of Shopify like this, you’re self-employed, but it really exposed what it was like to build a platform. Shopify gives everyone the opportunity to reach customers around the world and make them feel bigger than they are.
I was introduced to Michael through one of my best friends, who was a pharmacist. When I saw what Michael was building, I showed him what I was doing at Shopify. I was like, “Wait a minute, we can actually take this bigger path than you think. I’ll show you how. And so, we put our brains together, and that’s how we ended up building MedEssist.
In Ontario, many pharmacies are operated by large chains. They probably have their own internal platforms. How does MedEssist compare with this?
That’s an excellent question. We are not in competition with that. What’s unique about MedEssist is that we actually work with independent community pharmacies. There are approximately 11,000 community pharmacies in Canada — places like RX HealthMed, Guardian and IDA
Did your view of how MedEssist work change when the pandemic started and COVID-19 vaccines started rolling out?
Pharmacists have been vaccinating for a decade around the world. We had a very, very successful flu season with our product just before the COVID-19 vaccines arrived. This product did so well that many industry partners ended up getting involved. The University of Toronto has been exceptionally beneficial. We really expanded across the country because we had to. We had no other choice. And we built a customizable, modular platform that let you do just that.
When you think of a platform like Shopify, what Shopify did was nothing new. There have been many website builders over the past decade. What Shopify has done differently is to make their product very modular, very accessible, very customizable, and anyone can use it. That’s really what we’ve brought to the average independent community pharmacy. A community pharmacy relies on us for prescriptions, for vaccines, for tests, consultations, the full range. They run all of their pharmacy services on MedEssist every day.
Given the backlog we’ve seen in Ontario’s medical system, do you expect an increase in demand for MedEssist? Do you think you will need to change your platform to help pharmacists keep up?
We actually have a platform for minor ailments that is available in other provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan. We are taking pharmacies and integrating them with the rest of the health care system. Pharmacies can refer you to the COVID test, if they don’t offer it, or – in six cities across Ontario – we can connect you with a nurse for a home phlebotomy if you have a physical disability. Or we can connect you to a virtual doctor. This access allows Canadians to have access to an alternate health care provider.
What we’re trying to do is raise the standard of care for all of our pharmacies. They are all committed to providing a hands-on experience for their patients, but also to sharing inventory, sharing knowledge, sharing resources, and providing the best healthcare possible. With MedEssist, you can expect the highest quality of care from all of our pharmacies, regardless of size, brand or location.
In Ontario, there is a big debate about the further privatization of health care. What do you think about this? You talked about prioritizing patient access, but you run a medical business.
When you look at companies like Maple or Dialogue or League, there’s a big shift happening – and we haven’t driven it. Canadians are trying to access health care on their own, trying to find better ways to get the care they need in the time they want. I think it’s a challenge, but I think it’s getting better. And I think some of those options are options that Canadians want. But I don’t know what it would look like in a few years from a political point of view.
MedEssist has been accepted into the Google for Startups Accelerator program for female founders. You’ve been to other accelerators before – what do you hope to get out of this one?
We’ve been part of Venture Lab and Brampton Venture Zone and H2I at the University of Toronto. What excites us the most about Google is that it is among the most recent cohorts. They’re making this incredible leap into space because – this is not news – women get less venture capital funding than our male counterparts. We need that extra help and extra support, and I appreciate it. A company like Google is a company we can count on to extend our services.
Our next step is to onboard our first US customers, because we’re already getting interest from there, and we really think Google can help us manage that expansion, which means crossing a border that we don’t have never crossed before. We’re also scaling our platform to manage patients on a scale we’ve never done before. So far we have served approximately half a million patients.
Women-owned businesses are less likely to receive venture capital or angel funding. Do you think this can be overcome with mentoring? Or is it a more structural change to give women founders better access to capital?
I think you really need both. If we didn’t have the attention we have today, a lot of unconscious bias wouldn’t be addressed. When you launch a pitch and identify as a woman, you tend to get questions that are more like, “How are you going to use this money?” How are you going to make this money work? These are very careful questions. I think my male counterparts would get questions like, “We totally believe you’re going to do this, but what can we expect?”
You need programs that cater to that. You also need mentorship programs – if you’ve never done something before, you’ll need guidance on how to get there. Whether you’re learning a new language or a new instrument, you always have some sort of framework.
How is the US market different from what you have experienced working in Canada?
There are many more digital health apps in the United States. I think the infrastructure is designed to support them and help them evolve in a very different way than in Canada. When you look at the United States, there are so many more opportunities where we can change the accessibility of health care.
Did you know that you can predict a person’s life expectancy based on where they were born? It’s not something that should be a fact. People generally tend to access the health care that is closest to them. The fact that there is a pharmacy on every city block in North America means that if you can help a small pharmacy, whether it’s a family store or a massive chain, then we can allocate health care on another level.
Do you hope to integrate your first American client? Are there any other extensions you want to bring to your platform over the next five years?
In the next five years? That’s a lot of time for a tech company. I think what you’re going to see from us is enabling local pharmacies on a larger scale. I won’t say globally – I don’t think your local pharmacy is going to start offering services in Greece. But we’ll help mom-and-pop stores do things for their communities that they currently can’t do on a much larger scale.
MedEssist is one of the only platforms in Canada where you can enter your entire registration in nine different languages. It was very important for us. During the pandemic, we have all seen how the Fraser Valley in British Columbia and Peel Region in Ontario have been affected. There were little things we could do to fill those gaps. One is to have patient access in different languages where they could feel comfortable going to the pharmacy as they can register in Hindi, Chinese or Korean.
When you’re in a technology company, you have to think about how you build technology that enables patients to access services like everyone else does. If you’re building something that only 20% of the population can use, you’re ultimately forgetting about the demographics you need to fit into that environment. So I think things like that are what you can expect in the next five years – enabling access on a larger scale, which has generally been overlooked.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION