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Talking Medicines | A Scots Startup’s Growth Journey

June 20, 2024
Elizabeth Fairley, Chief Operations Officer and Chief Data Officer of Glasgow-based Talking Medicines, discussed the data-tech company’s growth journey from a Scottish startup to an award-winning AI company making waves in the US market.

Originally posted on DIGIT NEWS

Elizabeth Fairley, CDO & COO of Talking Medicines

Elizabeth Fairley, CDO & COO of Talking Medicines

 Founded in 2013, the rise of Talking Medicines has been nothing short of meteoric.

The company’s novel approach, which analyses conversational data from patients and physicians using artificial intelligence and advanced data science, has seen the company win multiple awards and be noted for its innovative use of data-driven AI.

Arguably the company’s greatest feat to date, is its successful expansion into the highly competitive healthcare market in the US.

In an interview with DIGIT, we spoke to Elizabeth Fairley, Talking Medicines’ chief operations officer and chief data officer to discuss the ins and outs of Talking Medicine’s rise and US expansion.

Finding Their Market

Talking Medicines founding team – consisting of Jo Halliday and Scott Crae – expanded in 2016 with the addition of Elizabeth Fairley, who now serves as the company’s chief operations officer and chief data officer. Halliday’s marketing experience, Crae’s knowledge in building bespoke engagement platforms, and Fairley’s expertise in data science meshed to create a tenacious triple threat. They’ve been working within the healthcare sector since day one, but their offerings have transformed multiple times to move in tandem with the evolving market.At the beginning of their journey, they released an app, MedSmart, which would collect patient data and offer guidance and reminders on how and when to take their medication. However, pharmaceutical companies and physicians wanted to know what patients actually thought about the medication they were taking. It’s with this in mind that Talking Medicines put the patient journey at the heart of their products and service. The challenge for physicians and pharmaceuticals was understanding the “importance of the patient within the journey,” Fairley explained. She added: “We realised that there was a vast amount of conversation happening on social media, with regards to patients talking about a huge variety of diseases

“Where we help them is to provide an environment where they can get access to the kind of patterns and trends of what patients are talking about.”

By (lawfully) accessing this data, it created an entirely new avenue for healthcare companies and physicians to access patients’ experiences with different diseases, conditions, and medication. Sifting through this conversational data, however, is no simple task. This is where a backbone, driven by data science, became indispensable.

Fairley described it as “trying to find a needle in the haystack.”

That’s when Talking Medicines began to build their own models to classify this data, sorting conversations into something from which insight could be derived, this process culminating into the creation Drug-GPT, their latest product, which allows customers to access this analysed data in an accessible, conversational manner.

Hopping the Pond

While it can be easy to see how Talking Medicine’s services are attractive to healthcare advertisement companies and physicians, their prolific rise in the UK and their spread to the US was in itself a bespoke craft. The US pharmaceutical industry is one of the most lucrative in the world, with $30 billion spent on marketing by pharmaceutical companies in 2023. Over 60% of US adults are taking prescription medication, according to Fairley.

“So we are talking: big market, big money, big problem.”

This mammoth market was partially the inspiration for Talking Medicines’ shift into conversational data analysis from patients, attempting to sift through and sort the muddled market of pharmaceuticals and narratives around drug experience in the US. Talking Medicines had their eye on the US from the offset, with penetrating an insular and highly competitive market always being the long-term goal. Supported with a “just get on and do it” attitude, that’s exactly what Talking Medicines did. The Talking Medicines team touched base in Boston, New York, and San Francisco to familiarise themselves with the US pharma advertising market.

“I think being there on the ground makes a massive difference,” Fairley said. “I think the advertising market is a very tight sector, so face to face meetings are important.” Packing their time in the States with a plethora of meetings and engagements to really get to know the sector, as well as endeavouring to get the sector to recognise them, has made a world of difference for the team. “Getting yourself completely submerged into where you’re going to land is really important,” Fairley noted. Beyond the social aspects of the American market, Fairley stressed the importance of sound legal advice when setting up a company in the country. “I’d really encourage on the ground, US-based legal advice that is suitable for the size of your business,” she said.

Navigating the US system, with its varying federal and state laws and regulations, can be a nightmare for foreign companies wishing to expand into the highly competitive, highly lucrative US marketplace. Not only that, but for companies dealing with large expansive datasets, understanding data compliance and regulation in a country with 50 separate state governments is not a simple task. “Really knowing your regulatory environment is important,” Fairley said. She added: “That’s been an advantage coming from the UK because we’ve obviously got the GDPR, and with the [EU’s] AI act, we’re familiar with stricter regulations.” But dealing with sensitive medical information, such as conversations between patients and physicians, requires further data governance considerations. Medical regulations such as HIPAA, and the various state laws, require an in-depth, on-the-ground understanding.

Overall, breaking into the US market takes a public leap across the pond. “You need to be right in front of people,” Fairley advised. “You need to be going to events, awards, you need to get good advice on the ground, and build yourself into the ecosystem. “The more you put in, the more you get back.”

The Growth Journey

Talking Medicines has been through several transformations since 2013, not just in their offerings, but in their priorities and team size as well. Navigating tumultuous economic headwinds and emerging technologies requires a steadfast hand at the helm to not shy away from difficult decisions.

While the team doubled their headcount in 2022, Fairley says the team expanded and contracted as necessary to pinpoint and strengthen areas with potential to be filled. “I think as a journey we’ve flexed the business up and down a few times actually,” Fairley shared.

“I think you have to be quite brave, because you can have different expertise along the journey that is really needed.” Recruiting expertise when needed, and also retracting when necessary, has kept Talking Medicine agile in the face of adversity and a changing market.According to Fairley, the ability to make these decisions and keep ahead of market trends comes with experience. “This isn’t our first startup,” Fairley said of the Talking Medicines founding team. “We’ve all gone on this journey before. We’re experienced in what we’re doing with regard to the business and company growth.”This experience has also enabled the company to take advantage of adverse circumstances. COVID offered the company a respite period to dive deeper into their research and development capabilities.

As far as AI developments, Talking Medicines has seen perceptions and hype cycles transform as AI continues to emerge.Fairley says it’s been an interesting challenge, seeing more and more companies brand themselves as AI ‘masters’. But in closing and procurement opportunities, there’s more in-depth questions about the use of AI technology, something that Talking Medicines has been doing for years.“I think because we’ve got the depth, we can come through those rounds, and other companies who are just adopting AI and branding as AI companies might struggle with,” she said. But the combination of the three leader’s varying expertise has kept Talking Medicines at the forefront of the market. Each member of the team is heavily involved in marketing and sales, with Crae leading the team’s ESG efforts. “We’re a force as three, but we’re also pillars of strength in our own expertise,” Fairley said.

“We’ve got a very deep domain knowledge on data and modelling – we’ve got a high presence there. But we’re also very visible with regard to the marketing and sales that we’re driving, and we are visible through ESG and data for good,” Fairley said. “I think that the combination sets us apart and makes us different – it’s exciting.”

And Talking Medicines has commandeered the AI bandwagon to their advantage, pushing some of their existing technology to the front with the launch of Drug-GTP, a curated large language model that can sift through conversational data and provide answers to customer queries around physicians’ and patients’ experience and perceptions.The technology makes putting patients at the heart of the business that much easier. The launch of Drug-GPT quickly caught customer’s attention, and changed the way the market viewed Talking Medicine’s services. “That’s when people started to go: ‘hang on a minute! This isn’t a social listening tool, this is actually a productivity tool,’” Fairley explained. This shift encapsulated a major shift in how AI is being used across the board. From machine learning models that can sift and sort through information, AI systems continue to be used to provide conversational answers to questions surrounding the data they analyse and sort.

About Talking Medicines

Talking Medicines is revolutionizing healthcare marketing using Advanced Data Science, Curated LLMs and Artificial Intelligence to unlock strategic intelligence within HCP and Patient Conversational Data.  Delivered to customers through a natural language interface Drug-GPT winner of PM360 Artificial Intelligence/ Data Analytics Award 2023.

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