An engineer puts up a high-tech fight against fake products
Saving consumers money isn't nearly enough to satisfy Ashifi Gogo. He has set his sights on something far bigger: saving consumers' lives. Gogo is the engineering mastermind behind the Mobile Product Authentication (MPA) solution from Cambridge, Mass.-based Sproxil. MPA enables shoppers to determine whether retail goods are legitimate, counterfeit or stolen using any mobile phone. Consumers simply scratch off the Sproxil security label affixed to an item at the factory to reveal a one-time-use numeric code, then text the code for free to a secure number to authenticate the product's origins.
While the MPA technology workswith any tangible product, Sproxil is focusing its efforts on the international pharmaceutical market. According to the World Health Organization, up to 30 percent of drugs sold in emerging nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America are counterfeit.
"Counterfeiting is such a huge problem," says Gogo, a native of Ghana who founded Sproxil in 2008 and serves as its CEO. "We've made a commitment to impact the lives of hundreds of millions of consumers in markets where people have no other means to verify the products they buy."
Gogo first encountered counterfeiting as a teen, sizing up knockoff Nintendo game consoles stocked on retailer shelves alongside the real deal. "The copycat consoles were sold at a much lower cost, but consumers had no real assurance they would work," he recalls.
He learned about West Africa's counterfeit drug epidemic while at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College; his Ph.D. research eventually yielded an embryonic version of the MPA service. Initially Gogo thought his technology would gain traction in the foodie market, applied to organic produce. However, "nobody wanted it," he admits. "Retailers felt it was irrelevant, and consumers agreed. They said, 'If Whole Foods says it's organic, then it's organic.'"
Sproxil enjoyed a much warmer welcome from the pharmaceutical sector, where legitimate manufacturers were scrambling to identify a user-friendly method to differentiate their products from counterfeit medications. Sproxil now sells the MPA solution directly to pharmaceutical companies and other brand owners, supplying coded labels (or simply the codes, if the manufacturers control their own printing facilities) and overseeing product verification on its servers.
In addition to pharmaceutical products, Sproxil labels are attached to everything from apparel to automotive parts to copper wiring. There are 3.5 million unique users across the Sproxil platform, with verifications approaching 6.3 million at press time. Gogo declines to provide figures but says sales are doubling year over year. Additionally, the firm has secured a $1.8 million investment from Acumen, a nonprofit global venture fund addressing international poverty.
"Counterfeiters better watch out," Gogo says with a laugh. "They may be forced to look for new careers soon." --Jason Ankeny