Creating access to sexual healthcare from Diepsloot to Sandton with ‘Uber for the Pill’ – Contro CEO Alex Schmit

Virtual health has been heralded for the past 10-15 years as the next disrupter of healthcare, but the uptake was slow until Covid-19. The pandemic served as an accelerator for healthcare providers and patients to adopt telemedicine. In a 2022 report, McKinsey concluded that, “the opportunity for technology and life sciences companies to address health equity challenges with digital innovation is immense.”  In South Africa, health-tech founder, Alex Schmidt saw an opportunity when he realised that the process of accessing the contraceptive pill could be lengthy and embarrassing and he launched a sexual health platform, called Contro in 2021. Schmidt told BizNews that they have treated more than 3000 patients and that 30% of them are in townships and rural areas. He said that Contro, which he described as ‘Uber for the Pill’, wants to expand its services, and it has attracted the interest of large corporate entities. – Linda van Tilburg

Extracts from the interview

Embarrassing process of obtaining contraceptive pill sparked the idea

It was actually an idea I got from an ex-girlfriend of mine. That’s a bit of a funny story, but basically, the idea came to me from her experience of obtaining a contraceptive pill. One day she came home furious and agitated after going through the usual process of getting a prescription for birth control. She explained that she had to go through to the doctor’s office, sit in the waiting room, and see a new doctor. He then started asking her questions about, ‘you’re 25, 26, surely it’s time, and she’s just thinking, come on, really, at this stage? She then gets the prescription, goes to the pharmacy, and again in public, this time is now being asked by the pharmacist, ‘surely it’s time, and this is an embarrassing process for her.’ She’s extremely furious about this… very agitated and my first question is obviously what’s wrong? She explained the process and the first thing that  popped into my head was, why can’t you do this online and the answer really made the light bulb go off. 

Offering six discrete, more affordable services

We have six services at the moment. We offer a chronic service, chronic management service for birth control. You can get your birth control online and we deliver that every month for you. We also offer erectile dysfunction for men, and hair loss for both men and women, which is quite interesting and then we also offer acute services or one social service for STI treatment, thrush and UTI treatment. All the things you don’t really want to talk to your doctor about or go out in public and talk about. We bring it online, make it exceptionally discreet, convenient and I think most importantly in South Africa, affordable. 

For a birth control consultation, you’re paying R150, which compared to a private consult you are looking at around R700 on average, and for a once-off consult, you’re looking at paying about R275. The difference as well is that you don’t pay for delivery. It’s all free. So, there’s no need to pay the extra hidden costs that nobody really talks about, which are all the travel, and the time off work, all those items are things that add up, especially even if you’re going to malls, you’re paying parking tickets. When you add that all up, plus the cost of your doctor plus the cost of your medication, we worked out that the average birth control user pays over a R1000 just in their first month.

More than 3000 patients are asking for more services, future plans include mental health, testing services 

Contro’s plans are much bigger than sexual health. I think when we started the business, we wanted to stay within the niche of sexual health because there was so much demand when we started to see the stats that are out there and the troubles that people were going through with accessing sexual health services, especially during COVID. That was a very interesting time with sexual health clinics being closed down. We thought, right, we’ll stay in sexual health and we’ll grow. However, we’ve grown so fast, we’ve already treated over 3000 individuals in South Africa, and the constant feedback we get from customers is, if I can get my birth control through you, why can’t I get everything else? That’s been the biggest wake-up call for us. Our plan now is to expand our sexual services, to include HIV.  We’re even going into items such as vaginal dryness, menopause management, and pre-ejaculation. We will round that off and we’re going to move out into mental health, which I think is a huge area that requires a lot of help and treatment and individuals need a discreet but accessible platform to be able to access that. Then we’re going to move into general health for items such as diabetes, hypertension, sinus infections, and smoking cessation. We’ve got a whole list. We’re going to have over 50 services that we offer plus, we’re also working on finalising a deal with one of the big pathology labs in South Africa, and we’ll be offering testing services as well. So, it really will be a full end-to-end telehealth platform. 

Customers from Clifton to Khayelitsha, Diepsloot to Sandton

Well, that was a shock to us. When we started, we were hitting people from Clifton all the way down to Kayelitsha, from Diepsloot to Sandton. 30% of our customer base at the moment resides in townships or rural areas in South Africa. What we were so surprised by, and to be honest, it was almost a bit of a stroke of luck, is that we were able to deliver to these people and allow them to gain access to health care services. We’ve delivered to the border of South Africa, near Limpopo, Botswana side. We’ve gone into North West, into the Northern Cape, in the middle of nowhere. I’m still amazed to this day that we’re able to help and treat these people. I think that’s where the difference comes in. The majority of our customer base is situated in the metros of South Africa, but we have been able to help those in rural areas and we’re looking to expand access to health care and I think this is one way to do it. Technology gives us that opportunity and we’re going to keep building on it. 

Interest from large corporate entities in ‘Uber for the pill’ 

I think we closed the fundraising at a very fortunate time. We closed it in November 2022. The start of 2023 has been hit with a recession and hard times for start-ups when it comes to fundraising. I think our timing’s been very good. We have had recent interest from large corporate entities in South Africa, is all I can say, in terms of looking to purchase quite a large percentage of Contro. We’re talking to a few parties in terms of that sort of deal, but we’re not rushing to raise more money at the moment. We’ve come off a fresh funding round and what’s great about the Contro model is that it’s an exceptionally low-cost model to run. The model, if you think about it, is kind of like an Uber model. It’s Uber for the pill, right? We don’t hire doctors, we don’t employ them. We’re not legally allowed to. They operate as third-party independents and the pharmacy is just in partnership with us. All we are, is a platform. I guess the best way to explain it is; we are the Uber app; the doctor is almost like an Uber driver and the pharmacy is the car and we just connect all the parties to make it a seamless process and create great access. 

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