The Big Interview: Jo Halliday, CEO and co-founder of Talking Medicines

Jo Halliday is at the helm of Talking Medicines, which describes itself as the world’s first patient intelligence company designed to meet the needs of pharma.

The Glasgow-based healthtech firm explains that its product PatientMetRx uses artificial intelligence (AI) to capture the voice of patients, from millions of conversations taking place over multiple sources including social media, forums and blogs, to measure their experiences of launched medicines.

It adds that it translates this into data enabling pharma to assess the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, reduce budgets, improve market competitiveness, and deliver better health outcomes for patients.

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Its CEO Ms Halliday “took the leap into start-up life” by co-founding the firm in 2013 on the principle of “profit with purpose” after working for FTSE brands including Coca-Cola and Jim Beam. It has since scooped a number of accolades including being selected by the UK Department of Trade & Industry as one of the First 100 UK digital health companies, one of Tech Nation's Rising Stars, and its leader named a “fantastic” example of a female-led scale-up creating a positive impact on society.

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The firm says its investment to date now exceeds £4 million after a funding round earlier this year. “The pharmaceutical industry will go through seismic change this year – and our actionable patient insights will be transformational for the industry,” Ms Halliday said at the time.

Can you explain why you decided to set up Talking Medicines, your vision for achieving profit with purpose, and what your role as CEO involves?

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I wanted to be able to build something that would have both commercial acumen and meaningful societal impact. I had been part of a couple of other start-ups, and that experience provided me with the confidence and vision to start Talking Medicines.

Finding co-founders is a critical decision point. I was lucky enough to meet fellow co-founder Dr Scott Crae through a previous business and Dr Elizabeth Fairley at an opportune time when the business was pivoting to data tech. We all share a clear and strong passion for putting the patient first and building a purpose-led and impact-focused business that addresses the need to understand patient experience for better relevant outcomes.

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'As a female-led founding team we have been keen to give back to the community as well as being supported,' says the entrepreneur. Picture: Jeff Holmes.
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Today, I lead a team of more than 35 who enable global pharmaceutical advertising agencies and in-house marketing teams to understand the real-world experiences of patients through the PatientMetRx platform.

Every day is different. As CEO, sometimes I am meeting with investors, colleagues and customers, other days I am traveling to New Jersey where we are setting up our US base.

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My job is ultimately to adapt, evolve and grow value in our business with the goal to be the global gold standard provider of patient intelligence by medicine.

The firm in February said it had closed a £1.5 million funding round to support its US growth ambitions. How will these unfold – and are you targeting other international territories?

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We launched PatientMetRx last year and since then, it has been increasingly clear that pharmaceutical advertising agencies based in the US, mainly New York, represent a massive potential market for us.

Our platform provides agency strategy teams with a new way of really understanding of what patients are saying and feeling about their medicines in near real time. This provides agencies with a desired competitive edge. Our new office in New Jersey provides the ideal base for us to build relationships with customers, acquire new leads and drive revenue growth in the States.

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During the pandemic we also focused on building our team here in Scotland and up and down the UK, as well as our team of data scientists across Europe, which will continue to be an important market for us.

You’ve received backing from the Scottish Investment Bank, SIS Ventures’ Impact First fund, and Scottish Enterprise – to what extent has all of this helped catalyse your growth? What are your fundraising plans going forward?

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Our fundraising success to date has been absolutely critical to our growth and development. Investors have seen the transition to the digital world gain pace, and this increases the relevance of our disruptive, high-growth, and impactful AI technology. Our investors recognise the ethical and economic value of our patient-first approach to health and welfare.

At the end of 2022 we plan to launch our Series A fundraising as we prepare to accelerate our business to the next level.

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Last year Talking Medicines announced partnerships with Socialgist, to increase data source coverage, and Closing Delta, to help marketing teams accelerate their digital transformation plans. Do you have any similar tie-ups planned, and if so, which areas of the business are you looking to strengthen?

We are always looking to work with, and alongside, other like-minded businesses. Collaboration has been crucial to developing our business.

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The partnership with Closing Delta is an example of partnering with other complementary agency providers into pharmaceutical companies. These partnerships help bring together our insights on patient experience by medicine alongside digital transformation consultancy and support.

It is also important for us to have a diverse multitude of sources to input into our AI models that filter and decode the patient voice as patterns of behaviour. Working with Socialgist allows us to access high-quality, patient-rich, publicly available data sources that can then be distilled into actionable insights through PatientMetRx.

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What is your view on any concerns around data security/privacy regarding Talking Medicines’ activity?

Medical and health data is obviously highly sensitive. Any activity that involves collecting, analysing and interpreting this needs to be fully compliant with industry regulations, legislation, and treated with the utmost care.

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We take the inherent sensitivity of medical data extremely seriously, and although we have seen improved understanding over recent years, there is still some way to go to make sure that people are educated and understand exactly how their data is being captured online.

It is important to stress that we mine socially sourced posts that are manifestly made available by their authors, and we are looking for patterns of deidentified, aggregated experience that can help inform pharmaceutical companies to drive better outcomes. Data for good and transparency are really important principles for us to advocate.

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The transition to digital, accelerated by the pandemic, has been deemed to have increased the relevance of Talking Medicines’ technology –what are your thoughts on this?

Absolutely. Like many industries, the pandemic has meant that the pharmaceutical sector has had to adapt its marketing and communication strategies while accelerating digital transformation plans including the adoption of new technologies.

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Healthcare agencies are finding that technology can provide enhanced support for optimised patient campaigns and identify opportunities for growth where more traditional methods are restricted in their capabilities.

You’ve highlighted concerns over the gender bias of data – how do you believe this can be improved? What about other biases e.g around ethnicity?

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Data will continue to play an increasingly important role when it comes to informing decision-making for businesses. However, it is also crucial to be aware of nuances and biases present within data sets to truly understand a factual picture. There will always be bias in data; there is no data without bias. It is how we approach these biases that is important.

How important has mentoring been to you in your career and who do you admire in business?

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Mentoring has been very valuable within my own career, and I have benefited from a number of formal mentors along the way. I also believe that informal mentoring through peer-to-peer groups plays a big role for entrepreneurs. I am lucky in Scotland to enjoy strong networks such as Unlocking Ambition supported by Scottish Enterprise, Entrepreneurial Scotland, and Women's Enterprise Scotland.

As we have expanded to the US we have found networks like BioNJ (which advocates for the life sciences industry) and Tech United, where we have been welcomed. As a female-led founding team we have been keen to give back to the community as well as being supported.

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I admire many in business, too many to mention. I love seeing success and those breaking glass ceilings where they have proven against adversity that they can win in whichever way they define that.

Next year marks Talking Medicines’ tenth anniversary. What would you like it to have achieved by then, and longer-term?

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2022 promises to be a big year for Talking Medicines as we expand our operation in the US – I am excited to see what the future holds there. Our vision of owning the gold standard pipeline of patient intelligence is coming to life, and we love what we do.

As well as being a sales-focused year to expand the PatientMetRx subscription base, we are developing a full pipeline of exciting new features to really drill into opinion-mapping for patients. It is important that we are constantly developing and staying at the forefront of patient insights, giving a window into their lived experience. At the end of the day, there is nothing more important than your health.

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