How a health scare inspired Stu Libby to save the U.S. economy billions of dollars

Libby

Stu Libby

By Tina Irgang

The U.S. spends up to $289 billion each year on health complications that result from non-adherence to prescription medication, according to an estimate by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For Stu Libby, a former account executive at Google and DoubleClick, that problem took on an urgent personal note when his father was discharged from the hospital without his life-saving cardiac medication. Libby quit his day job and founded Zipdrug, whose goal is to cut down on non-adherence by delivering scripts on demand.

What got you interested in the issue of medication non-adherence?

Libby: It didn’t happen all at once. There were two moments in my life that I think got me to the point where I said, that’s it, I’m pulling the plug on my old career and doing this. … Twenty or so months ago, I was waiting in line at the pharmacy. I had to get to the airport, and there was a long line. It was taking forever. Someone in line had a lot of questions. So I wrote the idea down while I was in line — on-demand prescription delivery. I was thinking at the time, you can get anything delivered on demand, and I thought a lot of people probably take prescription medications. … Two months later, it was the early morning of Christmas Eve 2014, my father called me and said he wasn’t feeling well. It turned out he was having a massive cardiac incident. He ended up being intubated about two or three hours after he called me and we rushed to the emergency room. It was really scary, but he survived. … At the hospital, when healthcare professionals came to the bedside, they would say, “Mr. Libby, you need to make sure you take your prescription as prescribed, or maybe next time you’re not going to have as good of an outcome. … Then, when it was time for my dad to get discharged and move to cardiac rehab, they didn’t send him away with his medication. I couldn’t believe it. … And when we got to the rehab facility, the pharmacy department was closed. We had to do a scavenger hunt to find his medication. That’s when I realized the problem was systemic. On a much more personal level, I wasn’t completely in love with what I was doing every day at my last job. Even though I had a career in advertising and technology where I was on top at a company, … seeing someone whom you love in that situation made me realize that life is short. All those ingredients kind of came together, and the first day back in 2015, I resigned from my position and decided I was starting this company. I didn’t even know what it was called yet.

How did you first get together with your co-founders Kyro Beshay and Webster Ross?

Libby: Not long before my father went to the hospital, I happened to meet Kyro, my first co-founder. I knew he had completed medical school. … He had a really good knack for design and vision and building products, and I remember having some interesting conversations with him about just some more general things other than drugs. But I reached out to him when my dad was in the hospital, and we decided we were going to do this, details to be determined. So the first week in January, I wound down my job at my last company. I started spending more and more time with Kyro, thinking about, what is this, how does it work? Is there anyone we can talk to in healthcare? We talked to the hospital, the pharmacy side of the business, physicians, anyone. … Around that time, we met Webster, who is our third co-founder and CTO, and we were able to convince him to come on board. I think it was early April when we convinced some really amazing investors to foot the money for our business. … We had the capital to actually put this product together.

Was there ever a point as you were starting the business when you panicked and thought, “Good God, what am I doing?”

Libby: Oh my God, all the time! I feel like you hear this a lot from other folks, but doing this, there’s a lot of ups and downs. There are days when you feel like you’ve really accomplished a lot and the future’s looking bright, and certain days when you feel like you don’t know anything and got it all wrong. You go back to the drawing board and start again. But when you know you’re onto something is when the good days really start to outnumber the bad.

In a perfect world, what would you like Zipdrug to achieve?

Libby: One in three scripts that are written are never filled. That causes 125,000 premature deaths in this country every year. It costs so much in preventable healthcare costs. Cost and convenience are two very big drivers of that. People don’t want to go to the pharmacy, they can’t make it, they don’t have the time. Sometimes people abandon scripts because the cost is so high. We address both those things. We bring the medication to you, and our partnerships with companies actually help lower the cost of medication. … I think that we can build a real business here and we can help people stay healthy, which prolongs life. Every morning, I get more excited because we literally are helping people get through their day. … When I worked for Google, I was in awe with some of the people I was surrounded by. … But some of the things that are being worked on by these beautiful minds are, “We’re trying to get the video to load faster.” And to me, sitting around the table here at this job, with our partners, our employees, we talk about how we can help people stay healthy with products, with engineering. That is the most empowering feeling I’ve ever encountered.

Why did you choose to launch Zipdrug in New York City?

Libby: I just think New York is a great place to start a company. You have a growing venture community that is getting behind companies at earlier and earlier stages, and you’re seeing companies that are growing up faster and faster. The venture community created an environment where the time is right to start a company here and now. … They’re putting money behind teams and great ideas that are well thought out. That’s really cool, and there’s really great talent here. There’s a lot of people that came here to win, and I think that shows in the caliber of folks who are attracted to startups. I’m glad that I live here. I think if I lived somewhere else, it might have been much harder.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.