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The Real Deal

By Jenny Davis

Ashifi Gogo and President Bill Clinton
Gogo speaks at the Dartmouth Innovation Program as President Bill Clinton observes. Photo courtesy Clinton Global Initiative.

Entrepreneur Ashifi Gogo ’05 fights counterfeit drugs and other product fakes in developing countries.

House plants are slow, according to Ashifi Gogo ’05, who tends to about 30 of them when he finds a quiet moment to do so at home. Their slowness appeals to Gogo as the total opposite of the rest of his day-to-day life: He is the founder and CEO of Sproxil, a booming venture capital-backed company that helps people in developing countries check whether their consumer goods are counterfeit.

He also has a brand new baby.

“Because we have offices in time zones way ahead of us—the earliest time zone is in India—I’m typically awoken by a text message or phone call from a team member in India with a critical question at 3 a.m. or so,” Gogo said. “But then again, with a six-week-old daughter now, I’m up at night anyway.”

Once Gogo’s day gets going, it doesn’t stop. He arranges daily phone meetings with Sproxil country managers in Africa and Asia; manages company strategy sessions; sorts investor requests; works to further existing relationships to help execute company strategy; and keeps all the balls in the air for his expanding and innovative company.

“That is a fancy way of saying ‘a lot of emails and phone calls,’” he summarized. If work starts in the middle of the night at home most days, there is also time spent in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, office, or even in the air—Sproxil has staff in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan, Tanzania, Mali and India. Though Gogo says he doesn’t travel as much as he used to now that he and his wife are growing their family, in the past he’s racked up more than 100,000 air miles a year, spending time in several of the overseas offices.

Sproxil Provides Consumers with a way to take their health into their own hands. In a world where counterfeit drugs—the initial target of Gogo’s company—can take the lives of some 700,000 unsuspecting people a year, Gogo has led the development of technology that enables consumers to use their cellphones to find out in moments whether something they plan to purchase is real or not.

Sproxil works with manufacturers to circumvent holes in the supply chain that counterfeiters can exploit, using mobile technology to empower consumers.

It looks like this: Say you go to your neighborhood pharmacist to pick up some anti-malaria pills. On the packaging, you find a scratch-off sticker. You scratch. A phone number is printed next to a code for the product.

You text the number with the code and immediately get a response from the app: “OK. Original.” Or, “FAKE. DON’T USE.” Unambiguous and, it turns out, life-saving.

That 700,000 number is from the International Policy Network and refers to the number of people who die from fake malaria and tuberculosis medications, according to a TEDx talk Gogo gave in 2012. “That’s equivalent to four fully packed jumbo jets crashing every day,” he said. “Now, that would make the headlines if it were that obvious.”

Since its founding in 2009, Sproxil has processed more than 50 million verifications. In that same TEDx talk, Gogo noted that the World Customs Organization reports more than $200 billion worth of fake drugs are sold every year. So the global economic and public health implications of Gogo’s work are profound.

A bit of profundity is perhaps no surprise, considering the wide-ranging nature of Gogo’s journey. Born in Ghana, he spent ages three through nine in Belgium, where his father earned his doctorate. Although Gogo wasn’t initially interested in studying abroad, he found himself in the midst of a teacher’s strike when he finished high school. Given the structure of the Ghanaian education system, this meant he would either have had to tread water for two years or take another tack.

With the computer science diploma he earned in high school, Gogo took a job at a prominent tech startup, teaching executives to use business software. Soon, however, after what he describes as “positive pressure” from friends, he decided to take the SAT. As it turned out, he got very good scores. He and his friends started investigating the websites of American institutions, including Whitman.

“I found that the school presented itself quite well online,” he said, “and [emeritus Whitman president] Tom Cronin was very accessible and open-minded. He worked really hard to make me feel welcome.”

Once he settled on Whitman, Gogo left his home city of 3 million people for an America he assumed would be a little bit Hollywood, a little bit Wall Street. The transition to small-town U.S.A. ended up being a bit rockier than he expected.

“Walla Walla was … weird. Initially,” Gogo laughed. “People stopped when the pedestrian walk sign said ‘stop.’ It felt like a vacation, at first; then, after a while, it was, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be four years!’”

Traffic rules aside, one big transitional roadblock for Gogo ended up being the difference between the education systems in Ghana and the United States. Double-majoring in math and physics with an economics minor looked a lot different at Whitman than he had expected.

“In Ghana, you effectively have a major when you leave high school. I knew I wanted to continue studying the physical sciences, but I didn’t want to take any classes outside my major. No drama, no arts, just physics and math. I spent the first year [at Whitman] basically trying to get my way, taking as many math and physics classes as I could. That was the escape velocity I had, coming into the U.S. from Ghana.”

Another difference, small but jarring: in Ghana, Gogo explained, students and faculty dress up fairly formally to attend classes. “The thought of my professor showing up in a T-shirt and shorts,” he said, referencing one of his favorite Whitman mathematics professors, David Guichard, “made me think, ‘I have to cover my eyes!’ [Guichard] was really smart and very direct, which I appreciated. The formality with which he thought was quite a contrast to the informal attire he brought to an 8 a.m. math class.”

And his French teacher, Dale Cosper—that was something else entirely. “He was basically a cowboy, the last image that came to your mind when you thought ‘French professor,’” Gogo remembered. During one class, Cosper took the entire group to his ranch, where they rode horses. Memories of Cosper included “muddy cowboy boots on the table while reading French literature … tying ancient Greek texts to cowboy analogies, sprinkled with French.” In other words, a typical Whitman anomaly.

Ashifi GogoGogo warmed to Whitman’s liberal arts mission and adjusted to the speed of life in Walla Walla. Asked about fond memories of the town, he recalled buying a bicycle to get around, then routinely storing it on a bike rack which happened to be dimly lit. When the bike was stolen, Gogo called 911, expecting cops to screech up to the scene, guns blazing, with handcuffs open, ready to arrest the bike thief.

“America’s best ad is Hollywood,” he explained. The 911 dispatcher promised Gogo the police would keep an eye out. Gogo never saw that bike again.

Instead, he found that then-president Cronin had something else to offer: his own personal bicycle for Gogo to use for his four years at Whitman. This gesture still touches Gogo more than a decade later.

“Tom had an interesting claim to fame in that he remembered everyone’s name,” Gogo said. “All the students! There were about 1,200 at the time. But he remembered me as ‘Ashishi’ [not ‘Ashifi’] and from my Ghanaian education, where challenging the teacher just isn’t something you do directly, I was too terrified to correct him,” Gogo remembered.

“I never got the courage. But he was such a nice guy. He was a really good mood-reader. He could sympathize; he had a way of knowing where you’re coming from and how to make things better.”

Whitman anticipates the possibility of bumps in the road for international students as they adapt to Walla Walla. One response is the Friendship Family program, that pairs foreign students and scholars with community members interested in cultural exchange. Gogo’s relationship with his friendship family, Doug and Karen Morton, softened his landing considerably.

“They helped smooth things out,” he said, noting that he was pleased to be able to catch up with the Mortons at last year’s 10th reunion. “They had a historic home in Walla Walla, helped me get my first laptop, and gave me a lot of very good advice on how to settle in. They also occasionally made fun of me because I didn’t eat cheese—that was a surprise to me; everything in America has cheese on it!”

As well as navigating America’s cheese obsession, Gogo dove into his studies.

Longtime friend Nagrem Agroh ’06, who attended high school in Ghana with Gogo but didn’t meet him until they both ended up in Walla Walla, said Gogo was a serious student from early on.

“In high school, he was renowned for being one of the ‘sharks’—highly intelligent students who got the top grades in every subject.

So I was expecting him to be a nerd who had no time for anything but study,” Agroh said. But that wasn’t all there was to the future entrepreneur.

“When I met him, I could see the intelligence and drive. Yet it was quite a delightful surprise to meet the affable, jovial and good-humored Ashifi full of wit, whose infectious laugh endeared him to everyone he met.”

One of Agroh’s favorite memories from his time at Whitman with Gogo involved a cruise in Gogo’s mini-convertible, during which the men’s love of fast cars and driving led them on a trip to Spokane and a tour of the back roads beauty of the region.

“We had been having a wonderful conversation that at some point went silent as the roads started to twist and turn around the beautiful greens and yellows of the rolling hills and mountains of Eastern Washington. The thrill from the joyride combined with the awe we felt at the raw beauty of nature that surrounded us is a wonderful memory that I never forgot,” Agroh said.

Gogo’s dedication to appreciating his present circumstances may have influenced his shift from the academically theoretical to the practical. After Whitman, Gogo found himself looking to make a measurable impact on the world sooner rather than later. He headed to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to study engineering, with a focus on long-range optical communication systems, but found even that lacked the practicality he desired. He described his vision, and his transition from math and physics to engineering to entrepreneurship, in an interview with the University of Michigan:

“Even as an undergraduate I always wanted to see the fruit of my labor impact society in my lifetime,” he said, when asked why he chose entrepreneurship over any number of more conventional paths for engineering Ph.D.s. “That was my yardstick. So I majored in math and physics as an undergrad and realized it was not going to happen in my lifetime. I was too involved in theory as opposed to practical. So I went into engineering for my Ph.D. work. And even then realized that you could end up with a job that doesn’t really impact people directly. So I decided to get entrepreneurial. The best way to carry your ideas out of the classroom and into the market and see impact is quite literally to do it yourself.”

Enter the Dartmouth Innovation Program (DIP), a highly selective track meant to open the doors of entrepreneurship to engineers. Gogo, the first fellow to finish the program, is featured on the DIP website shaking hands with former President Bill Clinton.

Gogo says his urge for practicality, the impulse to create meaningful change that can be measured in years rather than generations, came at least in part from seeing his dad’s work. His father’s doctoral research in Belgium focused on strengthening non-traditional road soils to build robust cost-effective roads in Ghana. The work would ultimately save the Ghanaian government money on building roads, and even back then, Gogo understood that this would help a lot of people very quickly.

Two different sets of pillsAt Dartmouth, Gogo got to work. The genesis of Sproxil lay in a venture that didn’t succeed, but laid the groundwork for future success: With a colleague, he designed a system to tag organic products at the source, to let consumers at Whole Foods, for instance, know whether their organic kale was truly organic at the point of purchase. The system involved a 2-D barcode attached to produce before it left the farm. The business plan won money at a couple of business competitions, but gained zero market traction when implemented in the real world.

“Turns out, nobody cares,” he said. What they found was that the United States actually does a very good job of labeling and keeping consumers in the loop about what they’re buying. People already trust the kale. But the philosophy behind the business plan was clearly sound.

“We were a hammer looking for a nail,” Gogo said. “We found a nail in counterfeit medications overseas, where people do care. Sproxil was started to address that problem.”

As he told the University of Michigan: “Looking at the trust relationship between purchaser and vendor, we’ve been able to design a solution that allows trust to be built in regions that have inherently low trust.”

Gogo relayed a theory of counter-counterfeiting to Fast Company magazine in 2013 by listing three things that spur consumers to want to verify whether a product is legitimate. One: does the real/fake status of your good affect your safety? Two: does it affect your wallet? Three: does it affect your social status? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you obviously care, and odds are that Sproxil’s product verification system could be helpful.

In light of those qualifiers, Gogo’s company has been driven since its inception by a determination to spot fakes of all kinds: in 2017, Sproxil helps consumers identify counterfeits in not only pharmaceuticals but also makeup, brake pads, even underwear.

The name “Sproxil” itself was designed to fit a broad swath of industry. It was inspired by a Dartmouth class on Entrepreneurship and Law and was meant to signal allegiance to no single type of authentication.

“It’s funny,” Gogo said, now that the company is best known for its role in the pharmaceutical industry, “people say it actually sounds like a drug—‘did you take your Sproxil today?’”

The accolades have rolled in as Sproxil has expanded its business operations to impact people positively around the world. As Gogo told The Guardian after being named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation in 2014, “recognition of Sproxil’s work through the Social Entrepreneur of the Year award creates greater awareness of the global counterfeiting problem and the work being done to combat it. The prestige of the award boosts interest in use of our solution from potential partners, clients and users, which creates opportunities to protect more products and consumers.”

Managing Director of Sproxil South Asia and Middle East Anand Mehta says he joined the company because the Sproxil story appealed to his interests (a background in engineering and entrepreneurship) and his conscience.

“Sproxil’s South Asia and Middle East Office is mainly based out of Mumbai in India, and this is now also the technology backbone of the company,” Mehta said. “We are the first ‘triers’ of every innovation and are also leading the deployment of newer products and solutions in this rapidly evolving market space. These markets see counterfeit products in all aspects of life, be it medicines, fertilizers, agrochemicals, automobile parts, beverages, etc. The Sproxil solution is the only one where there is a two-way communication between the customer and the corporation/manufacturer.”

The upshot? “The end user is empowered to verify the genuineness of the solution in real time. It is cost-effective and also lends itself to seamless marketing,” Mehta said.

Working with and for an inspired leader like Gogo is another plus for Sproxil employees. Mehta recalled that the first time he met the CEO, at his interview for India country head, he was surprised and impressed to find that Gogo had prepared for it as much as he had.

“It showed me that the CEO was hands-on and totally involved in the company,” Mehta said. “The direct approach adopted by Ashifi gave me additional reinforcement about the kind of company I was joining.”

Mehta added, “Ashifi’s vision for Sproxil will take us to all corners of the globe. Our primary solution—targeting counterfeiting—has a major social impact on fake medicines and other products. Counterfeit products not only harm the consumer but also generate money used in the parallel economy to fund anti-social activities.”

Some of the biggest challenges a venture-backed company faces have to do with the global context of their business dealings. It’s difficult to show consumers in countries like the United States, where trust in consumer goods is high, that there is a significant problem with fakes in other parts of the world.

“‘Canadian pharmacies’ are frequently nowhere near Canada,” for example, Gogo said. “But getting people [in the U.S.] to understand the problem is really the biggest hurdle in getting people to appreciate what we do.”

Gogo said that Sproxil is approaching 60 million customers served and that the company is adding even more industries to its target areas. In addition to drugs and brake pads, for example, Sproxil provides authentication services for goods like engine oil and alcohol.

Agroh, Gogo’s college friend, said he’s delighted that Sproxil is making inroads. “Recently, there was a news story from Ghana and Nigeria of plastic rice being sold as genuine rice and putting many people’s health at risk,” he said. “So for me, the benefits of having a verification system like Sproxil’s used across most products sold in developing countries and its impact on the well-being of these societies cannot be understated. I wish for their continued success in the fight against fake products.”

There is a lot of work still to be done. Gogo’s personal motto, as he told The Guardian, is “focus, execute and enjoy yourself.”

Gogo advises Whitman students who are interested in going entrepreneurial to start early. Between the many online resources available at no additional cost, the expertise of professors and their vast networks, and the multiple guest speakers and alumni who are within reach at Whitman, students are well-equipped to guide their most promising ideas into reality. And once your feet are under you, give back. Gogo’s decade away from Whitman has had a global impact, but he has stayed involved on a smaller scale, giving a talk at Whitman a few years ago, working on a grant to help international students get laptops (as per his own experience) and sharing his earned wisdom. Even young alumni, he said, have much to offer current students.

“People who are even 10 years out can have valuable experience and a lot to give back,” he said. “They’re not the class of 1954 that has done it all, but there’s a lot that can be achieved in 10 years.

"We can participate in school events, mentor current students and leverage our networks to help them make the transition to the post-college world.”

Counterfeiting is an ancient trick with no single, clear, best response; in fact, the nature of the issue might go a long way toward explaining how well it aligns with Gogo’s talents.

Fortune magazine asked some of its “40 Under 40” innovators to name the best piece of advice they had ever received. Gogo’s answer: “It came from a ridiculously challenging graduate engineering test that could only be solved by approximation. Many problems can be solved approximately right.”

Published on Apr 24, 2017
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