Philly native wins $500,000 prize for drug-redistribution start-up

 Kiah Williams and team receive the top prize in Forbes' 'Change the World Competition.' (Glen Davis/Forbes)

Kiah Williams and team receive the top prize in Forbes' 'Change the World Competition.' (Glen Davis/Forbes)

When Kiah Williams, 29, was growing up in Overbrook, her father fell ill and became unable to work the grueling hours required of a small business owner, resulting in serious financial consequences for her family. “I witnessed what happens when families can’t afford health care,” said Williams.

To respond to that need, Williams co-founded SIRUM (Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine) in Palo Alto, California. “I want to make sure that others will not have to make the painful choice between taking their meds, paying rent and buying food,” said Williams.

SIRUM, a nonprofit organization, provides technology through which nursing homes and pharmacies donate their unused medications to public clinics, so patients in need can receive prescriptions free of charge. Medications include treatments for mental illness (Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, biopolar disorder, depression), osteoporosis, stroke, heart disease, glaucoma, respiratory disease, and HIV.

“We’re the for unused drugs,” said Williams. “While some states already have programs to redistribute unused medications, no one was tackling the issue on a national level. Meanwhile, one in four working-age adults are not able to fill their prescriptions due to cost.”

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Williams recently returned to Philly last week for the Forbes 30-Under-30 Summit, a gathering of over 2,000 young entrepreneurs and would-be game-changers. The high point for Williams was finding out that SIRUM won the grand prize in Forbes’ “Change the World Competition” for businesses addressing global challenges. Her company will receive $250,000 in cash and $250,000 in services.

“This prize is crucial to our ability to scale up our team,” said Williams, who recalled “bootstrapping” with her partners Adam Kircher and George Wang until they could afford to quit their jobs in 2011 and focus full time on SIRUM. At the time, Williams was working at the Clinton Foundation on a child obesity project.

Leaving a full-time job with benefits to launch a startup has its risks, but Williams and her partners say it was worth the sacrifice. “I followed the best advice I was ever given: ‘Motivation follows motion,'” she said. “Sometime you just have to get started pushing that boulder up a hill.”

Williams has yet to reach the top of the hill. “We believe that every unused medication should be safely recovered to reduce costs for patients, clinics and states,” she said. “Every year $5 billion worth of unexpired prescription medicine is destroyed by hospitals and nursing homes. Meanwhile, 50 million Americans don’t fill their prescriptions because they are either uninsured, under-insured, have a high deductible or have somehow fallen through the health care gap.”

Since it launched four years ago, SIRUM has distributed $4.7 million worth of medications and works with 200 donor organizations. William’s goal within the next four years is to facilitate 1,000 organizations donating $19 million worth of drugs.

While in her home town, Williams found time to take the No. 10 trolley to her old neighborhood. “My family was ecstatic. They know how hard I’ve worked,” said Williams. She visited with her 96-year-old grandmother and went to her favorite pizza shop for a cheesesteak.

“You can’t get a decent cheesesteak on the West Coast. They just don’t have the rolls,” said Williams.

However, she didn’t have time to pay a visit to Mastermann, where she attended junior high and high school. “You can get an amazing education in Philadelphia public schools,” said Williams.

For Williams, it’s not just about money. “We are living in revolutionary times,” she said. “The question is, how can we make use of the resources we have? The Forbes Summit provided SIRUM with leverage and exposure, which we hope will encourage more states to participate.”

Currently, SIRUM works with organizations on the west coast and would like to get involved with east coast donors and clinics.

“Forty states have prescription recycling programs. Pennsylvania does not,” said Williams.

Are you listening, Gov. Wolf?

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story did not make clear that Williams’ father had owned his business when he became sick, and it oversimplified the connection between his illness and the family’s financial situation.

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