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The BIZ Mentors TelePharm for Rural Iowa Economic Development

"It seemed like this was a real opportunity, so I quit my job to make myself a little hungry," Roby Miller joked of his decision to dive head first into a vacuum he had perceived and begin development of TelePharm Technologies. At about that same time, a friend advised Miller of the Iowa Demonstration Fund, and of the Business Innovation Zone and Mike Colwell, Executive Director. An email to Colwell began a collaboration, which led to funding, which allowed this young Iowa entrepreneur to fully seize that opportunity.

The result was TelePharm, a remote verification and workflow application with a video conferencing solution for rural pharmacies to operate multiple locations with one pharmacist. The application enables a remote pharmacist to inspect and verify prescriptions at each pharmacy to ensure accurate dispensing filled by the local technicians.

TelePharm History

Miller, a University of Iowa graduate in Entrepreneurship and alum of the Stanford University Advanced Project Management program was working for NCS Pearson in Iowa City and looking for the right challenge when he realized it had been in his own backyard the whole time. Raised in the rural Iowa town of Kalona, he grew up around the pharmacy business with his father, a pharmacist himself, owning five pharmacies in rural Southeastern Iowa communities.

A victim of declining rural populations, the family had reluctantly been forced to close several of those businesses as they had become awash in red ink with the diminishing revenues, the high cost of insurance and the salaries required to secure professional pharmacists at each location.

"My family was looking for a solution to this challenge, and while the concept of a remote pharmacy was not new, there was no viable software available," he remembers. After reading some research from a University of Iowa study that suggested the need was fairly substantial throughout rural America, Miller decided to take the leap and tackle the problem himself.

A Meaningful Mentorship

Connecting with Miller in mid-2012 Colwell begin to mentor him through the business planning and product development process and helped prepare his idea for submission to the Demonstration Fund. "Our relationship was such that I could tell him what I was thinking and he would give me feedback and we would do that over and over until I had a finalized business plan," Miller explained. Colwell's guidance helped propel Miller to selection as a 2012 recipient of the Demonstration Fund with the board granting $75,000 to beta test his prototype. "His expertise and experience really helped me with not only the Demonstration Fund, but with the whole process. Together we laid out the pillars of TelePharm," Miller said.

A Success for Rural Populations

Launching in late 2012, TelePharm Technologies held their first Grand Opening in Victor Iowa on November 2 with Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Reynolds in attendance. The dignitaries present were a reflection of the potential impact of TelePharm Technologies. Branstad, in his comments on the occasion, described TelePharm as, "An innovative idea that hopefully will catch on and be successful here and be able to be utilized all across our state."

Miller explains that the pivotal role of the rural pharmacy makes its preservation a matter of economic development for a state which, while it is becoming increasingly urban, remains predominately rural. Colwell added, "With the growing elderly population, rural pharmacies are critical, not only to dispense medication but to provide support for the clinics. If the pharmacies close the clinics are often soon to follow suit. The pharmacy becomes a staple for the smaller communities, and yet compared to most retail businesses it is very expensive to operate."

Miller has high hopes that he can impact the preservation of rural life across Iowa and beyond, and toward that end, he continues to partner with Colwell. Now the mentoring has changed its focus from product development to marketing. "Mike has so much experience with marketing that I can shoot him ideas or concepts just to get his eyes on them and to give me feedback. I usually get a same day response which is great. He continues as a great partner and mentor," Miller said.

With the help of that mentorship, this unassuming young Iowan is working to both preserve his heritage as well as assure the future of Iowa's small towns.

Square One DSM, an initiative of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, is formerly known as Business Innovation Zone (BIZ).