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From idea to startup

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From idea to startup: WeRx mobile app lets customers compare pharmacy prices

Imagine a gas station sign with no prices listed, Ali Khoshnevis says. Then imagine you filled your tank there, only to find you paid $100 more than you would have at the gas station across the street.

Millions of people face a similar situation every time they go to a pharmacy, he says, because there’s no easy way to comparison shop.

That’s why he and his brother, Amir, founded Charlotte-based WeRx, a free online tool and mobile app for users to compare prices at area pharmacies.

The site, created in early 2012, has a database with millions of prices for 700 different types of medications and their generic equivalents, Ali says. Patients and doctors can visit werx.org, enter the drug name and their ZIP code, and see the prices at various area pharmacies on a map, with addresses and coupons.

Ali presented his company to startup experts, entrepreneurs and investors at local startup hub Packard Place last week. Afterward, the 31-year-old spoke with ShopTalk about his journey from practicing physician to CEO of a startup he hopes will revolutionize the prescription medication market.

Wake-up call: Charlotte residents Ali and Amir, both optometrists, practiced together at Carolina Family Eyecare. One of their patients, Dan, was the impetus for WeRx.

Dan’s health was in decline. The 62-year-old finally told them why: His medications were too expensive. And if he had to choose between providing for his family or spending thousands of dollars on medication, he chose family.

Dan died soon after. “We (didn’t) ever want this to happen to another one of our patients,” Ali says. The brothers decided to try to change the system.

Strategic partners: Ali and Amir were well versed in medicine, but needed help building the technology.

With about $70,000 of their own funds, they hired developers who created a Web- and mobile-based system that stores data that pulled from users, pharmacies and public records.

Then they connected with Revolution Electronic Health Records, based in Madison, Wis. Company CEO and part-time optometrist Scott Jens is now advocating for the system with the 2,000 practices nationwide that use Revolution.

He’s working with Ali and Amir to develop WeRx software that would show prices on the same screen doctors use to write the prescriptions.

“Now they can choose the (location) based on its price before it’s sent to the pharmacy,” Jens says.

The brothers also applied to startup accelerator programs, such as Queen City Forward, and entered competitions along the East Coast. They took first place in the biotech category in the recent Charlotte Venture Challenge.

They began hosted webinars for doctors, most of whom didn’t realize prescription prices varied so much. Ali gives an example: In Miami, one prescription drug he researched was $350 at one pharmacy. One mile down the road, it cost $4.

Joining the medication conversation: Ali says confidently that patients and health care providers will never have to pay for the service. He expects to raise money through advertising on the site, but is currently focused on improving the product.

Ali says that after presenting last week, a man told him he’d recently tested out WeRx.

The man’s father had been driving 20 miles to the nearest Walmart to pick up medication that cost him $150 a month.

Using WeRx, the man found a pharmacy only 5 miles away that sold the same medication for $16.

“It gives me even more energy to work harder and make this happen,” Ali says.

From idea to startup tells the story of how an entrepreneur turned an idea into a business. Caroline McMillan: 704-358-6045 or cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com.
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