125 Stanford Stories

NO. 28

Service through entrepreneurship

SIRUM, from right: Leslie Walker; George Wang, PhD '09; Adam Kircher, '07, MS '07; Kiah Williams, '07, MA '07, and Amy Chen, '13.
Courtesy SIRUM
SIRUM office shot
SIRUM's Adam Kircher and Kiah Williams at work in 2014, when they were Haas Center practitioners in residence.
Courtesy of Grinnell College

Kiah Williams and SIRUM route surplus medicine to those who need it

 Kiah Williams, ’07, MA ’07, often thought that she would become a physician. Instead, she and two fellow Stanford alumni promote healing in another way. Their nonprofit tech startup launched in 2011, SIRUM (Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine), routes surplus medication to patients who otherwise couldn’t afford to fill their doctors’ prescriptions for diabetes, HIV, heart disease and other chronic and costly ills.

Williams calls SIRUM “a Match.com for surplus medicine.” Through SIRUM’s online platform, hundreds of pharmacies, nursing homes and hospitals now match and ship their unused, unexpired medications to clinics in four states. They save money on medical-waste disposal and keep drugs out of the waste stream.

The match that SIRUM provides was enabled by many earlier connections made at Stanford – matches of the university’s extraordinary resources to its gifted and audacious students. Through Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service, which mentored Williams and SIRUM at key junctures, Williams and her co-founders, George Wang, PhD ’09, and Adam Kircher, ’07, MA ’07, found their path to social change through entrepreneurship.

She and her co-founders returned to Stanford as 2011-2015 Visiting Practitioners at the Haas Center, a relationship that helped them face the challenge of launching and marketing a product for social betterment, and that allowed them to mentor students in turn.

“Kiah Williams represents the best of Stanford alumni working to change our world,” said Megan Swezey Fogarty, deputy executive director of the Haas Center. “As she finds ways to redistribute medicine to those who need it most through SIRUM, she also mentors Stanford students and young alumni, provides internship opportunities and helps students explore the complexities in how social entrepreneurship can be an effective mechanism for positive social change.”

Williams and other entrepreneurial alumni will share their stories in a public symposium, “Celebrating Founders,” on Feb. 24 at Memorial Auditorium as part of Stanford’s 125th anniversary celebrations.

“I grew up one generation out of poverty,” Williams said. “There are a lot of paths put forward for someone with a background like mine. You’re urged to do something comfortable, prestigious and stable – to be an engineer, a doctor.”

While mulling over her postgraduate plans, Williams gave serious thought to those more traditional career paths. But, she ultimately chose to embark on what she calls “one of the best experiences of my life, one that would take me on a very different path.” She received one of the Haas Center’s annual Tom Ford Fellowships in Philanthropy. These intensive, 11-month mentored experiences in domestic foundations educate Stanford graduates about the role of philanthropy in society and encourage them to enter the field.

“I was always interested in health care, so I chose the William J. Clinton Foundation,” Williams said. “It was a turning point in my life.”

She initiated pacts with health insurers to fund prevention and treatment of childhood obesity by folding dietary counseling, for example, into coverage agreements for more than 2 million children.

Williams observed, to her surprise, that this work she loved was essentially entrepreneurial, since it connected a product – healthcare services – with a need. This insight gave rise to SIRUM as Williams moved back to the Bay Area and renewed her Stanford connections.

“George and Adam and I had all looked at the issue of medicine access – initially in conjunction with disaster relief after the 2004 Indonesian tsunami,” she said. They knew access to medication was a domestic issue as well. Williams had seen its effects firsthand through her public service in health clinics and community centers.

“I saw people whose chronic conditions, such as diabetes, worsened because they could not afford prescribed medication,” she said. Many uninsured or underinsured patients manage to afford a doctor visit, but then must choose between filling prescriptions and covering food or rent.

The irony, SIRUM’s founders realized, is that in California alone, health facilities such as nursing homes dispose of as much as $100 million annually in medications that were prescribed but never used, either because that person no longer needed the drug or because he or she passed away.

“We knew of a small nursing home in San Jose with a surplus of medication,” Williams said. “And we knew of a clinic in San Jose with a need. They were five miles apart. But how to connect them? The answer: Through technology.”

A so-called “Good Samaritan” law enacted in California in 2005 allows care homes and some other holders of surplus medication to give it to low-income clinics. This law, too, has Stanford roots, arising from a Stanford Medical School student project on waste whose participants won the yearly “There Oughta Be a Law” contest run by then-State Sen. Joe Simitian, MA ’00. Forty states now have similar laws.

Through SIRUM’s online platform, donor organizations with surplus medications are matched with recipient clinics that need the same drugs. SIRUM supplies prepaid labels, tracks the shipment and provides the regulatory paperwork needed at both ends.

SIRUM has established a California network of more than 200 donor facilities in more than 80 cities. It followed with Colorado in 2014, and has recently begun operations in Ohio and Oregon. In all, SIRUM has distributed roughly 4 million units of medicine – enough to help more than 150,000 patients.

In 2014, Williams and Kircher received the Grinnell Prize for social justice. In October 2015, Williams won the grand prize of $500,000 in grants and services on behalf of SIRUM in Forbes’ Under 30 Change the World Competition.

SIRUM runs very lean, with two full-time employees in addition to the three founders.

“Every year my co-founders and I say, ‘This is the year when it all becomes amazing,’” Williams said.

“But the idea of thinking that there is one singular moment is not productive for a founder. Instead, we get small validating moments when we’re with our customers. And we concentrate on getting each of those little interactions right. That’s what we have learned leads to larger-scale success, and, hopefully, changing the world for the better.”