Back in 1992, a pharmaceutical company sales colleague of David Cunningham’s approached him and said, “I had a dream you came up with an idea to get rid of cases of drug samples and still have samples.”

Cunningham thought then said, “Here’s how I’d do it,” and began developing the idea that became Raleigh-based TrialCard last winter.

TrialCard lets salesmen give doctors credit cards instead of boxes of pills. The plastic cards are coded to let patients get free samples from pharmacies after their doctor authorizes the card. Each card is brand specific.

Cunningham, chief executive officer, president and founder of TrialCard, already holds two patents on the technology behind its credit card-like product. Two more are pending.

TrialCard boasts Gerald G. Mossinghoff as a mentor and board member. Mossinghoff is a former assistant secretary of commerce, commissioner of patents, and president of the American Pharmaceutical industry trade group, PhRMA. “He knows the ins and outs of the legal and political aspects of sampling,” Cunningham says.

The 15-emmployee company just “came out” officially, at a pharmaceutical industry conference in Boston in late April, Cunningham says. It already claims the top 12 companies in the pharmaceutical industry as clients.

Cunningham says the firm is about three months from moving out of its 4,000 square foot offices into new 10,000 square foot offices at One Weston Parkway. The company generally hires project managers for each client and brings them on as it brings on clients, Cunningham says.

$8 billion annual industry

“We started selling in August last year and landed our first major contract in September. We decided to make sure we could deliver and concentrated on that and just finished implementing it,” Cunningham says.

The overall drug sample industry amounts to a whopping $8 billion a year. “If we do half a billion in five years, that would be great. For 10 years I’d be more aggressive,” Cunningham says.

His new method for delivering drug samples to doctors and patients offers attractive benefits to nearly all concerned in the transactions, Cunningham says. “It’s a win, win, win, win situation,” he says, then proceeds to enumerate the reasons.

“The pharmaceutical industry no longer has to go outside its normal distribution channels to hand out little boxes of pills,” he says. “The representatives no longer have to account for every little pill. Yet they still give the doctors something of value, and the doctors still have something of value to give to the patient.”

Information is the real value

On top of those reasons for TrialCard’s success, Cunningham says, “Government regulators have frowned on sampling for years and that whole issue goes away.” With TrialCard, he explains, only pharmacists hand out the prescription medicines and every aspect of the sampling transaction is recorded.

“We know when the reps give them to the doctors, when the doctors authorize them, when the pharmacist fills them,” Cunningham says.

He adds that manufacturers like it because it pulls everything through the normal distribution chain that delivers drugs to pharmacists and does not require special packaging or bookkeeping. The doctor no longer has to worry about pharmaceutical labeling laws.

On top of these advantages, Cunningham says the real value of TrialCard is the information it gives pharmaceutical companies about how their sampling efforts worked.

“For the first time the pharmaceutical industry has a method to measure cause and effect relationships. In the past all they knew was that they gave eight million samples to reps. With TrialCard we close the information loop. We know what the doctor did, what the patient did, what worked and what didn’t.”

Cunningham says the pharmaceutical company, which gets it as part of buying the TrialCards, owns the information. “If they want us to do the analytics, we would charge for that, but they might prefer to do it themselves,” he says.

In the pilot programs last year, some clients paid for the entire TrialCard program at once. Others paid when cards were printed, others when cards were activated. “We haven’t determined the most appropriate way to price the product yet,” he says.

TrialCard Web site: