Big pharma still uses manual methods to recruit participants for drug trials, and that costs the industry money. Lots of money. The pharma industry loses $4.2 billion per year due to drug trial delays and $250K in lost sales per day that a new drug’s market launch is postponed. More importantly, delays in the approval of new treatments can also cost lives.

This is the problem that pre-launch startup TrialBee, one of the highlights of Startup Bootcamp Copenhagen’s investor day, aims to solve.

Patient recruitment is a key bottleneck in new drug development. Pharma companies often use consultancies called CROs (Clinical research organisations) to recruit trial candidates. These CROs scour for candidates using a network of doctors, research clinics and even print advertising. Using the current methods, 95 percent of respondents don’t match the trial criteria. So one of TrialBee’s first innovations was to pre-screen candidates for a particular trial via their website.

Potential candidates will typically find the site via patient organizations and forums and relevant Facebook groups. Candidates search for their particular condition and relevant studies. The pharma company or CRO can provide content about a trial, such as a video explaining the level of commitment required and possible risks. Some trials are highly medically focused and may require lots of time and testing. Others are simpler and only demand a monthly visit to a clinic. TrialBee then pre-screens interested candidates using typical trial criteria like gender, age, BMI and medical history.

Pharma companies and CROs that have tested the system have already asked for mobile features. For some conditions, like COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), patients go through successive relapses until they eventually die. New drugs aim to make a relapse less severe. So candidates must not only have the disease but be about to relapse when they start the trial. A combination of manual mental and physical tracking and sensor data aggregated via a mobile phone can be used to detect the start of a relapse and make the trial more effective. Trials related to the big three chronic diseases — diabetes, cancer and heart disease — may make heavy use of mobile technology in the future.

So why do people volunteer for drug trials in the first place? “Patients with chronic diseases want access to the new drugs and to contribute to drug development,” says co-founder Jonas Billing. Healthy volunteers tend to be more interested in the money.

TrialBee has been running a proof of concept with drug manufacturer AstraZeneca since Q2, 2011. Based on the results so far, that company now estimates TrialBee could save it 1 million EUR ($1.34 million) and 30 days per trial. The first signed customer is CRO Commitum with whom TrialBee will launch in January 2012.

I asked TrialBee’s founders why big pharma companies and CROs aren’t already using online methods to recruit candidates. “The Pharma industry is a very conservative industry. They look at the processes they have used before and try to automate them. That doesn’t work. We connect candidates directly to clinical trials,” explains co-founder Tobias Folkesson. Some CROs, such as Quintiles in the U.S., have web platforms, but they are normally limited in terms of geographical reach, and each CRO recruits for it own trial sites only. TrialBee aims to be an aggregator of trials available globally.

TrialBee’s business model involves a flat fee of 5,000 EUR ($6,714) to add a trial to the web site and a fee of 2,000-5,000 EUR ($2,685-6,714) per candidate who participates in a trial. The initial target market is Scandanavia and the Baltics but the company expects to expand globally at an aggressive rate.

TrialBee was founded in October 2009, has four employees and has raised 145,000 EUR ($193,000) in angel investment from Hampus Jakobsson and others.

Startup Bootcamp funded the travel and accommodation required for this story.