This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.
Using mobile technology to capture data for clinical trials research, Exco InTouch deals with businesses in almost 100 countries from its Nottingham headquarters.
We spoke to CEO and founder Tim Davis about the issues involved in introducing a new digital approach to a highly-regulated industry, how the company is now aiming to help people live healthier lives with help from their mobile phones, and why winning the Judges’ Award for International Success at last month’s Northern Tech Awards is an important accolade for the business.
What’s your startup story?
My background was in running clinical trials for large pharmaceutical companies. The company I was involved with was providing similar services to what we do here but the hardware we are delivering on wasn’t available at the time.
This was 15 years ago and the tech environment has changed so much in that time. The hardware and delivery was clunky, but the idea was really good.
I knew there were better options available and I decided to leave and start up Exco InTouch in 2004. We were delivering on a mobile phone platform – smartphones hadn’t really been invented, there were a few kicking around but nothing like today.
Twelve years ago, we were sending SMS messages to patients in clinical trials. Now 96 per cent of people globally have phones; we’ve been helped by the adoption of technology by people around the world.
We are live in around 97 countries and have been involved in over 200 projects in those 12 years and connected to about 26,000 hospitals and doctors’ clinics. We’ve connected and communicated with well over one million patients in around 70 languages.
We also work in the UK but it’s probably one of the smaller parts of what we do. Clients may sign the paperwork here in the UK, but they’ll ask us to run clinical programmes in many different countries.
Exco InTouch CEO and founder Tim Davis
What challenges did you face starting out?
Really our customer base in a sense, because as an industry, pharmaceutical companies are very conservative. Like most big companies, they don’t move quickly.
They are slower than the larger blue chip companies because of the kind of work they’re doing and the safety risks. Everything has to be right, data has to be accurately recorded, stored sensitively and deal with patient confidentiality.
If a small business turns up and says we can do this all on mobile devices, depending on the business and their experience of technology, it can be quite a challenge. You have to find stars in their business to be able to champion your approach.
Most entrepreneurs expect things to just happen, but it always takes longer than you expect or your business plan ever says.
There was a phrase someone used at the Northern Tech Awards: “here’s to all the tech entrepreneurs who’ve had to work decades to achieve overnight success”.
It’s a challenge for any new player in an industry that maybe has large companies as competitors that have dominated for a while.
There has always been that kind of risk of someone coming in with a new business model that disrupts. You think and adapt and find areas where larger companies can’t compete.
Pharmaceutical research is the most highly regulated industry in the world – even more than the nuclear industry. That’s an additional challenge for us but for any new business there will be challenges.
Exco InTouch diary on an iPhone
What are your main challenges now?
They are slightly different. Really for us, the challenge is managing the growth and ensuring not just that we continue to do a good job for customers but continue to offer a challenging but welcoming work experience for employees.
The business started with me, and there are now over 100 permanent people and we are looking at over 120, 130 in the next 12 months.
We try to ensure that the culture is still there and the values we’ve looked to set, and that takes time, effort and consideration. We have to balance that against doing a really good job.
There is no margin for error. We’re bringing in new staff, graduates who are less experienced and we have to ensure we can train them so they truly understand the impact of the decisions they make. These are all things that keep you awake at night.
What are the key drivers for growth in your sector?
Clinical trials technology has pretty much been proven now. We were replacing paper – taking paper questionnaires out and putting the data on mobile devices. People understand it now and there is not that level of fear there as there was in the early days.
There will be a US$500 million clinical trials market by 2020. There are opportunities there for us and our competitors to do really well.
As a business, we don’t just work in clinical research on the research and development side, we also work with commercial drugs that have been tested and proven to be safe and are available on prescription.
We are developing apps for smartphones to help patients take better care of themselves, understand their diseases and how to take their medications to achieve the best outcomes
We have been working in that area for less time, it’s a market we’ve just come into in the past two years or so.
It’s interesting what we’ve been reading in the press – there are now more overweight people than underweight people in the world. It is a challenge the NHS has. The world is getting older, people are living longer, and in some territories they are not taking the best care of themselves.
There is an opportunity for technology to facilitate that without having to build more hospitals and employ more nurses.
It’s an interesting angle for us in patient monitoring. That’s a big target for us, to collect a much more detailed profile of patients at home in their normal routine.
All this data to analyse will be challenging – how we analyse and dissect it, and technology
Why did you choose to start in Nottingham?
When we started the business, we had an office in the South of England on the Hertfordshire-Essex border where I was based at the time.
We were starting to struggle to attract talent because we were pretty much slap bang between Cambridge and London. People go to Cambridge for the science and London for the bigger opportunities and financial rewards.
We started to look at other locations. Our chairman had run a similar business a few years ago with different technology but a similar customer base in Nottingham. We found we could uncover some fantastic talent there.
We closed the office in the South and centred all our efforts here, although we do have an office in America.
We’ve found Nottingham great for mobile apps and software testing talent. We are lucky to have very large and very good universities nearby with excellent courses. We have good relationships with them.
It’s a great place for us to be and helps with the growth trajectory we’re currently experiencing.
What’s the digital tech scene like in Nottingham?
Because of the universities’ focus on the mobile app area, it’s noted as a hotspot for mobile app development.
There are more app agencies in Nottingham and the surrounding area than anywhere else in the UK including London. Graduates do their degrees and come out with a lot of debt and they’re looking for work. Their first port of call is not London because of the cost of living; if they can get a job or work for themselves here why wouldn’t they here?
It’s created a really interesting and vibrant tech cluster here in Nottingham and in other cities in the North.
We do have relationships with app agencies and design agencies, and it seems to work very well for us.
Do you collaborate with other digital companies locally?
The nature of the regulations we have to deal with and work towards means if we relied just on our own staff, they may lose a contemporary feel, so we try to engage with external digital companies too. If you look inwards you lose the ability to see what is happening – what is the latest version of iOS etc.
We can tap into what’s happening. It’s a cutting edge product that ticks boxes for the customers. That’s a really nice symbiotic relationship for us.
You won the Judges’ Award for International Success – what does that mean for the development of your business?
Just being able to accept the award on behalf of the business is great. To be recognised means a tremendous amount for every employee.
They are all committed to working very hard to develop Exco InTouch as a business internationally. The areas we work in – clinical research and healthcare– is a global business by nature and that is always at the forefront of our mind with our tech services. It’s a fantastic accolade for the business.
How important is it to get recognition from your peers? Are events like the Northern Tech Awards important for the digital sector?
It’s very important and it’s great that people are able to support them. It really highlights the strength of digital companies in the North of the UK.
It illustrates to areas down South the talent we have in the regions up here. It highlights that the opportunities are here and the skills sets, so that people consider establishing offices in the regions. The North is a great place.
From a PR perspective, other companies can use that – they can see we’re in the top 50 businesses and we have great people. That can potentially attract investment. It raises awareness and the profile.
What’s the next step for your business?
We’re continuing the journey. We’ve been going for 12 years now but in terms of our growth trajectory, it’s been most dramatic in the last three or four years.
Our budgeting for the next three years is certainly continuing at similar levels. There is still a long way to go. I’m committed and the board is backing me to see where we can go to.
We know we’ve got good products in the clinical trial space. I think we’re big enough to be heard but small enough to out-manoeuvre those larger companies.
In the general health space, there are three or four examples right now and I want to see where else we can push that.
It will be interesting to move away from specialist drugs to look at medical conditions and disease in a broader sense.
The mantra for our business is our patients are at the centre of everything we do. If we do that, the data takes care of itself.
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