Pharmacist-Turned Entrepreneur Dreams of Safe Drugs for All

An award-winning startup is hoping to transform Cambodia’s healthcare sector and offer Cambodians safe access to drugs. Kiripost’s Bun Tharum speaks to co-founder Dr. Chea Vireak to find out more.
PillTech CEO and Co-Founder Chea Vireak (photo: CADT)
PillTech CEO and Co-Founder Chea Vireak (photo: CADT)

Pharmacist and entrepreneur, Dr. Chea Vireak, is modernizing Cambodia’s healthcare sector through digital technology in hoping it can bring more affordable and safe medicines for millions.

In late 2021, Cambodia-based startup PillTech won the nation’s ICT award for its innovation in products, services, accomplishments. The unified health care super application gained traction of 250 percent from August to October 2021. A total of 1,000 Cambodian pharmacies are platform users.

PillTech Solutions, Best Digital Startup of the Year (photo: CADT)
PillTech Solutions, Best Digital Startup of the Year (photo: CADT)

In addition to scooping this year's Gold Medal at the ASEAN ICT Awards 2021, beating off tough competition from startups across the region in the annual competition, PillTech is among a few from Cambodia to reach this milestone.

To accomplish his startup’s mission, the pharmacist by education and profession focuses on one thing: building a platform for pharmacies to give millions of Cambodians access to safe drugs. The platform developed by the health tech startup is more than just a digital or mobile health app.

Instead it is an ecosystem in itself.

According to Vireak, PillTech is “Built by pharmacists for community pharmacists”.

To tackle one of the most crucial issues facing pharmacies, the PillTech platform features a real-time reporting tool with a pharmacy Point of Sale system with features such as drug expiration date alert, auto-reorder generation, and inventory management to name a few. In addition, it has a web-based and mobile app solution to source reliable products from verified suppliers.

In this interview, I asked the pharmacist-turned entrepreneur about how he built his startup and his vision.

Tharum: Can you please introduce yourself?

Vireak: Hello. My name is Dr. Chea Vireak. I am the CEO and co-founder of Pilltech, the Southeast Asia Pharma Marketplace. Since I was a kid, I was always drawn to healthcare. It brings me joy when I can make someone feel better. It’s been 9 years since I’ve been back in Cambodia from the States, where I called home for 20 years.

I’m super-excited to be back and give a helping hand to help shape our healthcare system together with our people here.

Question: What was it like to be away from your home and parents at the young age? What are the three biggest lessons you learned while living in another continent?

Vieak: My brother and I left our home and parents in Cambodia to move to the US at the age of 13. We stayed with my aunt and uncle in San Diego, California. Being away from our parents at a very young age helped us grow up very quickly as we had to adapt to the new living environment and living independently. It was a difficult transition at first with learning a new language and adapting to the new culture. But, just like most kids, we adapted very quickly and well.

The biggest lessons learned while living in the US were:

  1. I was taught at a very early age to learn to work with others. This was by far the most important lesson learned, as being a healthcare provider you have to be able to work with your peers to provide better care for your patients.
  2. Another great lesson learned was to work while attending school. It’s definitely a great way to learn and gain experience working while going to school. You can apply what you’ve learned in school to a real-work environment. It makes you more well-rounded after you graduate from school.
  3. Lastly, I need to learn to listen actively. To really listen, you have to actively engage in the conversation. This is one of the most important skills needed to be a pharmacist, as you need to know what people are saying in order to provide the best medication recommendations for them. This is also very important when starting PillTech, as I have to listen actively to our customers’ feedback in order to help them help me improve our technology.

People leave Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh on December 15, 2021. Picture: Sam
People leave Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh on December 15, 2021. Picture: Sam

[ Battambang Hospital Goes Online ]

Question: Upon your return from the States, what impressed you the most? And what frustrated you the most?

Vireak: I was amazed by how nice and polite our Cambodian people really are. Our people have so much patience and are always courteous and respectful to others.

What frustrates me the most is that most pharmacies are still practicing traditionally using pen and paper. This is one of the main reasons why PillTech exists.

Our goal is to digitalize all the pharmacy SMEs to incorporate technology to help their business grow bigger using data from our pharmacy POS, built by pharmacists for pharmacists.

Question: Based on your observation after your return, what was healthcare and pharmacy sector like?

Vireak: Pharmacists are the point of care for our people. So, to really take good care of our people from a public health point of view, we have to educate pharmacists so they can in turn take care of patients.

At Pilltech, our focus is to empower pharmacists with our technology and knowledge in retail pharmacy so we can free their time in the backend and have more time in the frontend serving their patients.

PillTech CEO and Co-Founder Chea Vireak (photo: CADT)
PillTech CEO and Co-Founder Chea Vireak (photo: CADT)

Question: You had a great mentor when working at Walgreens, what are the three advices you have to give to Cambodian pharmaceutical students preparing themselves to join this crucial workforce?

Vireak: My three advices:

  1. Know your patients by their first name. At the store where I used to work, we knew everyone by name. For example, we know where they work and where their children go to school. This is called building relationships with your patients, so that they can trust you and stay with you even if new competitors enter your area.
  2. Have empathy for your patient. People aren’t themselves when they are sick or not well. Thus having empathy and patience is an important skill to have as a pharmacist or as a person in general.
  3. Learn to accept negative or constructive feedback from others so you can improve yourself. At PillTech, being open to constructive feedback from our users is very important. Without it we can’t innovate and improve our products for our users. We are where we are today because we actively listen to our customers.

Also: [ Cambodia Launches National Startup Program ]

Question: Tell me how living and studying abroad contributed to how you run things, especially PillTech Solutions, here in Cambodia?

Vireak: Technology plays an important role in healthcare in the U.S. I was very fortunate to see how technology evolves over time to help healthcare providers perform their daily functions.

The most challenging thing is to see which tech solutions we can bring here to improve healthcare in Cambodia and potentially expand to other ASEAN countries. The technology we have built at PillTech isn’t new, however, we have to innovate and localize slightly to fit the local market here. One thing is clear is that we need to localize to increase adoption with local users.

Question: Five years from now, what do you think PillTech will contribute to the development in this sector?

Vireak: Our vision has always been to provide solutions to help empower pharmacists so we can provide better care for our people. There are a few products in the pipeline that we think will help pharmacists to make the right decision when providing medication recommendations to the patients.

Our goal is to build products that pharmacists can use to help patients and at the same time increase awareness of pharmacist as a profession. In addition, we provide more benefits than just a software solution for pharmacists.

Pilltech Solutions Startup Team (photo: CADT)
Pilltech Solutions Startup Team (photo: CADT)

Question: What's next after PillTech? If you were to have all the resources and a talented team to execute the biggest dream project in life, what would it be?

Vireak: We envision Pilltech to be the healthcare superapp in Cambodia and other ASEAN countries. Because we have background in healthcare, we really understand the pain points from providers’ and patients’ point of view. We want to create the healthcare ecosystem around PillTech where we can connect patients to their providers and providers to their pharma distributors through a single online platform.

There are really some exciting products in the pipeline which we think will really help and improve our healthcare sector. Our goal is to increase more access to affordable healthcare throughout Cambodia.

The biggest dream of all would be to work with our Ministry of Health to digitalize our healthcare sector, so that millions of our people can have access to equality healthcare.

[ How Cambodia’s Startups Surf the Uncertainty of the Global Pandemic ]

[ Cambodia ICT Award 2021 ]