Chronic medication distributed to rural areas – ARVs, tuberculosis treatments and the like – often arrives in bulk consignments. Pills are disbursed by medical staff in individual doses, without the package inserts that describe directions for use, contraindications and side effects. Clinic staff provide this information when the medicine is collected, but what if there was an easier way for individuals to access it once they leave the clinic?
Adriaan Kruger and his team at nuvoteQ, a division of NEXTEC that focuses on providing software solutions to the pharmaceutical industry, thought the answer might lie in the technology that allows cell phone users to access their balance and buy airtime. They built a system that uses Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) technology to allow users to access medical information from any cell phone, free of charge. nuvoteQ plan to update this service to make use of WhatsApp Business, which will allow an AI interface to answer common medical questions and urgently alert doctors in case of an emergency. As a believer in the transformative potential of technology, it’s one of the projects Adriaan’s most proud of.
Born and raised in Rustenburg, North-West Province, close to Sun City, Adriaan moved to Pretoria after school, where he obtained his bachelors and honours degrees in Information Technology (he has subsequently obtained his MBA from UNISA and Open University in the UK). Straight after completing his honours in 2005 he joined an Oracle consulting business, REO Consulting, as employee number one. That business was sold to EOH in 2008, and Adriaan moved down to Cape Town to set up the EOH Oracle Services office there. In 2013 Adriaan left EOH to set up his own business.
“When I told my colleagues,” Adriaan recalls, “Asher [Bohbot, then EOH CEO] invited me for lunch to ask why I was leaving. I told him I wanted to experience the other side of the start-up equation, having been an employee but not an owner. I told him that if all went well he could buy me back one day. And lo and behold, that’s more or less how it worked out.”
The company Adriaan founded, then known as PharmaLTx (today known as nuvoteQ), focused on building digital solutions in the pharmaceutical industry, mainly to assist in the administration of clinical trials, which are data-intensive, complex, and, at least in South Africa, still largely paper-based.
There was clearly a market for PharmaLTx’s services, and the company was bought out by the TCD Group, which was subsequently acquired by EOH. Adriaan was back. “My colleagues couldn’t believe it when they saw me back at EOH. But in hindsight it makes sense. I’ve come full circle, and I understand the entrepreneurial side of the EOH business much more clearly now.”
As someone with intimate experience of being a start-up employee, founder, and working at a large organisation like EOH, Adriaan is philosophical about the way in which to best leverage the strengths of each level of organisation in a way that acknowledges their often-competing priorities, and passionate about the idea of fostering innovation and start-up culture within the EOH environment. “There’s incredible potential value in an organisation such as EOH, provided we can find a way to share knowledge and learn from our mistakes,” he explains. “We’ve got bright, excited young entrepreneurs with incredible ideas, and we’ve got older professionals who’ve been through the experience of starting businesses and who might take a more pragmatic approach. If we can facilitate the exchange of information between the groups we’ve got a basis for ongoing, actionable innovation.”
A recent EOH Exponential Organisation under-35 event, at which Adriaan was a facilitator, was an example of how such a process might work, as well as a reminder of the depth of creativity and innovation available to EOH. “The whole Dragon’s Den exercise we did at the events was really illuminating. Putting people on the spot and pressure testing their idea from all angles – financial, scalability etc. – is a phenomenal way for people to measure whether their enthusiasm might lead to a potentially successful business. I love that idea of an innovation hub or skunkworks within EOH, both to identify ideas with business promise, but also to share stories of success within the group, and, as importantly, to share our failures. Learning from our mistakes is what makes our progress iterative.”
Adriaan acknowledges that celebrating failures and encouraging experimentation requires leadership commitment and a healthy organisation to support it. “It’s hard enough to encourage innovation when your company’s doing well, but right now the leadership understandably has a lot on their minds. Stephen and the team have done an excellent job under incredibly tough circumstances. His passion clearly lies in encouraging excellence, but he’s had to do some very tough groundwork first before we can get to a place where our focus is on supporting innovation again. That mindspace will come about again in a climate where we have a bit more breathing room. My prediction is late 2020.”
Now, as a CEO himself, Adriaan reflects on why leadership takes courage and what courageous leadership actually means. “I remember, about 18 months ago, we had an internal session where we talked about what leadership entails. And one of my colleagues said that courageous leadership means doing the right thing, even when nobody else is watching. And that sums it up for me perfectly. Principles are not principles if you only pay lip service to them. They have to have an effect on the way you lead your own life.”
As someone with a deep-set belief in the ability of technology to effect profound positive change, it’s no surprise that one of Adriaan’s role models is Elon Musk. One recent SpaceX project in particular – Starlink – has Adriaan excited about the possibilities awaiting us.
Starlink is, in SpaceX’s words, a “… constellation of low Earth orbit satellites, [that] will provide fast, reliable internet to populations with little or no connectivity, including those in rural communities and places where existing services are too expensive or unreliable.”
According to Adriaan, this is set to be a game changer for third-world nations in particular.
“If we can have robust, quick connectivity across the entire geography of Africa, it’s going to be an amazing facilitator for technology-driven progress. We’re limited today in terms of the solutions we can provide, because there just isn’t the distribution mechanism to get them to people reliably. Trustworthy, worldwide connectivity that doesn’t depend on local power supply or networks is going to bring about fundamental change.”
When Adriaan’s not thinking about the Africa of tomorrow or the possibilities inherent in the healthcare of the future, he can be found unwinding with his two toddlers, aged three and five. He’s also up every morning at 4.30am to exercise, as much for the mental focus and clarity it provides as for its physical benefits. A long-time (and talented) golfer, he also makes sure he gets to the course at least regularly, though he understandably doesn’t have as much time for the game as he used to. Nonetheless he remains, in his words, “absolutely obsessed” about the game.
From start-up employee to start-up founder to CEO, Adriaan’s journey is, in some ways, a microcosm of EOH’s. His excitement and optimism about the future – his own, EOH’s and the continent’s – is a valuable reminder that tomorrow is going to be exactly what we make of it; nothing more and nothing less.
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