Illustrated portrait of Kelly Nguyen
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Kelly Nguyen is being honored with UCSF’s Alumni Entrepreneur Award for her leadership, determination, innovation, and insight. Yet she prefers to give the credit and attention to her father and grandparents, who inspired her, and to UCSF, the school that made it all possible.  

“I am blessed to even have had the opportunity to be here,” Nguyen says. “I came from a humble background. But many miracles happened along the way.” 

When her father was a political prisoner in a “reeducation” camp in Vietnam, Nguyen’s grandparents took care of her. Times were tough, and food was scarce.  

“The cherished and loving foundation I had in my childhood was so powerful,” she says. “That is what holds you during the hardest times of life. I was broken so many times but kept on going because of the spirits of those who passed on that torch of love.” 

The love and the challenges have empowered Nguyen to be a hardworking, visionary pharmacist and entrepreneur who never compromises – and has seen many dreams come true. 

Fulfilling dreams 

Once Nguyen and her father were able to get out of Vietnam, they lived in a series of refugee camps. At one of them, an older girl told Nguyen she planned to go to pharmacy school, planting a seed of possibility in Nguyen’s mind. 

The family managed to get to San Francisco in 1983 to build a new life – but as they began to settle in, the entire block they lived on was razed by a fire. They didn’t even have identification.  

They persevered, and Nguyen began to learn English and worked hard in school.  

She was admitted to Santa Clara University and sped through in two years so she could get a job as soon as possible and support her father.  

“I got a house with him, and that was his American dream: a beautiful home for the first time,” she says. 

Nguyen went from her father’s dream home to her dream school, UCSF, to pursue a doctorate in pharmacy.  

“UCSF is just in a class of its own,” Nguyen says. “I was really young at the time, but just seeing the dedication that the professors provided was inspiring.” 

Forging new paths in pharmacy 

After graduation, Nguyen started a specialty pharmacy service, Mission Road Pharmacy, in the early 2000s. The company delivered HIV and oncology medications and hard-to-find drugs to thousands of patients.  

Her father was the inspiration for the project. He was diagnosed with cancer, and she cared for him through the end of his life just three months later.  

“I saw the hardships of taking care of someone living with cancer,” Nguyen says. “That was the reason behind my first startup for taking care of patients living with cancer, HIV, and other conditions of very high-touch care: providing what they needed to help them through the journey of their disease.” 

The business grew quickly, and she was eventually able to sell it. She could have retired and rested on her laurels, but she had more to do. 

Now she’s CEO of her latest venture, DrKumo, which empowers patients to verify, authenticate, and manage their medications using a smartphone and the platform’s intelligent medication management. The company also specializes in telemedicine and remote monitoring because patients with chronic conditions like congestive heart failure or hypertension can measure their blood pressure or other health information, and through the company’s technology – which makes use of an intelligent cloud service and machine learning – this data is shared with care coordinators who can act on it. 

In addition to providing the platform, DrKumo has its own staff of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists to respond to user needs, as well as a team of data scientists who can help fine-tune the user experience. 

Due to its military-level cybersecurity, DrKumo is one of four companies selected for a $1 billion Remote Patient Monitoring and Home Telehealth contract from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The contract means DrKumo will assist veterans in managing their health, but the company’s technology is helping patients around the world. 

“I hope eventually all health care providers will be able to utilize digital health so we can increase capacity everywhere,” Nguyen says. “There is such a shortage of clinicians, and it’s going to get worse as the population ages and longevity increases.”  

For her innovations and deep care for the health of all patients, Nguyen has received several accolades, including the 2020 Cartier Women’s Initiative Fellowship.  

She calls her latest prize, the 2024 Alumni Entrepreneur Award, “such a huge honor” and hopes that her work will inspire girls around the world to see the vast possibilities for their lives, even if they face obstacles. 

“As long as you work really hard, then when luck strikes, you will be ready,” she says. “Work hard on what you believe in, and surround yourself with a team to help you along the way. I’m thankful for everyone who has helped me – and UCSF has empowered me to have a platform to voice my gratitude.” 

Award recipients featured in this video about innovation:
• Sebastian Bernales, PhD ’06, Postdoc Alum - Graduate Division Alumni Association Alum of the Year
• Cheryl J. Cherpitel, BSN ’68, DrPH, MPH - Alumni Discovery Award
• Nicholas T. Hertz, PhD ’13 - Alumni Early-Career Award
• Kelly Nguyen, PharmD ’96 - Alumni Entrepreneur Award
Find out what else awardees shared with us.
Access the videos