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Wits graduates awarded start-up capital for pharmacy innovation

- Wits University

Wits Pharmacy graduates were awarded seed funding for their automated, antimicrobial-surface coated pill-dispensing innovation, Ra-Pill.


Ra-Pill is an automated, digital small-scale, countertop, tablet and capsule counter for pharmacies. It assists in the rapid and accurate counting of tablets/capsules dispensed to patients, reduces the risk of human error and the potential for contamination in the dispensing process, through self-cleaning mechanisms.

Mbuso Thwala and Mpho Maake secured the top prize of R100 000 in seed funding as part of the Prospector@Wits course run by Wits Enterprise. The Ra-Pill innovation trumped five other pitches with its novel self-cleaning mechanism, laser counting accuracy, and antimicrobial coating.

This achievement builds on the success of the initial conceptualisation and prototype development of Ra-Pill, from the (then) students’ BPharm 3 project for the PharmApprentice programme.

The initial Ra-Pill student group, comprising Mbuso Thwala, Mpho Maake, Zinitha Mahlangu, Nabeelah Lambat and Salehah Moola, were runners-up in the PharmApprentice programme in 2019.

PharmApprentice programme instigates innovation

The PharmApprentice programme is implemented by the Division of Pharmacy Practice including Mr. David Bayever, Ms. Zelna Booth, Ms. Stephanie Leigh De Rapper, Mr. Andrew Jones, Dr. Gillian Mahumane and Ms. Rubina Shaikh, in partnership with Aspen Pharmacare, to facilitate pharmaceutical business leadership development and a growth mind-set for entrepreneurship and innovation in pharmacy.

Since early 2019, during the PharmApprentice programme, Ra-Pill’s development has been a collaborative effort, demonstrating Wits’ emphasis on nurturing cross-disciplinary innovation and entrepreneurship. For example:

  • The self-cleaning aspect of the device was proposed by Professor Pradeep Kumar and Mr. David Bayever in the Wits Department of Pharmacy in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
  • Wits Enterprise, through adjudicator assistance and provision of a lecture on pitching skills and intellectual property searching.
  • Ms. Zelna Booth introduced the Ra-Pill concept to Dr. Michael Lucas in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, who had just won the prestigious Prix Hubert Tuor Innovation Award in Switzerland for his Antimicrobial Coating Technology as part of his PhD with Professor Sandy van Vuuren in the Department of Pharmacy.
  • Lucas provided inputs on how the Ra-Pill design would facilitate efficient coating of the device.
  • Financial support from the Wits Department of Pharmacy and Aspen Pharmacare enabled the purchase of the materials needed for the 3D printing of the Minimum Viable Product prototype.

Prospector@Wits course enables entrepreneurship

Pharmacy graduates Maake and Thwala decided to take the Ra-Pill innovation further and applied to participate in the Prospector@WITS course. The course exposes researchers and postgraduate students to innovation and entrepreneurship, focuses their attention on better appreciating end-users’ needs, and raises awareness of the journey towards successfully commercialised products and services based on their research.

The Prospector@Wits course provides an introduction to key tools – such as unpacking the value proposition through the Business Model Canvas – and directs participants to engage in structured engagements with end-users and stakeholders by using Design Thinking and Customer Discovery methodologies.

Both Maake and Thwala, who graduated from Wits with a Bachelor of Pharmacy degree in 2020, agreed that the PharmApprentice programme geared them toward success  in the Prospector@Wits course, where PharmApprentice adjudicators – both academic staff in the Department of Pharmacy, as well as external entrepreneurs, experts and practicing pharmacists – gave input to improve their innovation:

Professor Yahya Choonara, Chair and Head of the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology at Wits, says: “PharmApprentice is a new curriculum innovation on our BPharm degree at Wits – a first on the African continent – to build the spirit of innovative thinking in solving real-world challenges.”

Dr Stavros Nicolaou , Group Senior Executive: Strategic Trade, at Aspen Pharmacare, has supported the PharmApprentice programme from its inception by providing a series of commercialization lectures, entrepreneurial mentorship, and sponsoring prizes.

Nicolaou says: “It lays the foundation for aspiring pharmacists to embrace entrepreneurship. Aspen is committed to youth empowerment and economic growth, and the PharmApprentice programme builds business capability among pharmacy graduates.”

Ms Anne Gabathuse, Senior Innovation Support Manager at Wits Enterprise, says: “We congratulate the Ra-Pill team on their success so far. They earned their spot as runner-up in the 2019 PharmApprentice Programme, and naturally progressed to participate in the Prospector@Wits course. The team clearly benefitted from the Prospector course, and really impressed the Prospector@Wits pitching panel. It is also exciting to see that within the University there is a continuum from entrepreneurship development at undergraduate level, to the development of commercialisable products that draws on the rich and diverse research conducted at Wits”.

Maake was surprised that their innovative idea won in the Prospector@Wits course: ‘‘I did not expect it but I was super happy about it!” says Maake.

The budding entrepreneurs plan to be making a profit within the next two years, however, they are realistic about what it will take.

“We feel like we just finished the easy part. Now the hard work begins; we have to justify the funding to the investors,” says Thwala.

With support from Wits Enterprise and the Wits Department of Pharmacy, the next step is to secure further funding and a partner to help them build a working prototype.