I’m not the kind of guy who sits in a box, turning cranks to earn a paycheck. That's not interesting to me. Being able to grow and build something—that’s what I love.
My love of building has resulted in a few patents. I've always loved having that entrepreneurial spirit, and one of the best places to direct that interest is technological innovation. I’m not talking about molding, stamping out, and shipping products from overseas. I’m talking about technology that truly scales.
When I hear people get excited about bettering their lives with technology, I get excited, too. I get laser focused on an idea. I kick the tires around six ways from Sunday until I truly believe it's a good idea—something that clears an efficient path for everyone to live their lives better.
My mother, father, and stepfather are all physicians. They encouraged me to go into business, not medicine.
I saw them as the typical doctors of the time, grumbling about insurance companies and how they took over medicine. They told me medicine was “dead.” But I heeded their advice—I studied finance with a concentration in capital markets. For a long time, I worked in green energy, acquiring and doing evaluation for those companies.
Unfortunately, I was in college during the late 90s. Many people, my brothers especially, were graduating into the startup boom and throwing themselves into it head-first. So that was no longer “sexy;” that seemed dead, too!
Ultimately, I went back to my entrepreneurial roots. I went to grad school for my MBA, focusing on entrepreneurship where I met the first of my two business partners in Parallel6. The three of us got together and brainstormed what we could do to start a new business. The two big questions we wanted to tackle were, “What does the market need?” and “How can we help people?"
One of our partners possessed a wealth of experience in Silicon Valley. He was at the right spot at the right time.
He understood this model of build technology, how it can be ubiquitous and in scale. That's how Parallel6 was born.
Initially, we were doing social media for business for generating leads. That work was immediately going towards mobile. We incubated our company with revenues from social campaigns to get the right developers to build the platform. At that time, there were people doing texts, Content Management Systems, Adobe, and mobile commerce. But no one was making it turnkey for the sole proprietor to have an app. We strung those pieces together and created a platform.
In order to find our “blue ocean” of opportunity, we looked at fields that were a few years behind on the technological curve. That’s how we stumbled upon healthcare. You could do your mortgage on your phone 15 years ago, but you couldn’t consent for a trial—something that’s a lengthy and often frustrating process. There were so many areas of medicine untapped by virtual systems. The healthcare industry was years away from that mindset shift. I wanted to be part of that fight; that education.
That search sparked something in my head—there's a different way to scale. It’s one thing to invent and have a patent and create widgets. It's another to write some unique code that is IP-protected, patentable, and being used today. Foraying into this corner of technology was an exciting path, but I had an additional advantage: my knowledge from finance world. I knew how we could raise money. I knew how we could understand our product’s value. Most of all, I knew we needed to buy another company to help us leapfrog. All of that was going on behind the scenes in order to figure out what Parallel6 could look like and how it would be funded.
There was a real gap in healthcare that was massively addressable by what we had to offer. The market has a huge barrier to entry, but we were capitalized. We didn’t want to duke it out in other spaces with industry giants like Coca-Cola to just have a name in our portfolio. We wanted to lead the industry, not be crowded out by agencies who could do it better. Healthcare’s move to digital was absolutely a “blue ocean.” There were no Mad Men-style agencies dominating big targets.
We were drawn to the promise of creating something to help people—that was our best play.
There were three pieces to our story that aided our foray into healthcare.
The first piece involved one of our investors, who turned into a partner. They had been hard at work with the Veterans Affairs Hospital (VA) and had previously worked with Boston Scientific. They knew that relationships like those are deep relationships with long-term contracts. It was a lacking sector where any kind of technology would help.
The second piece involved engagements with Eric Topol, the founder of La Jolla’s Scripps Research Translational Institute, early technology adopter and author of three best-selling books on the future of medicine. When we met, he gave us a couple of observational studies to work with at Scripps. These guys are really leaning forward at the time. From there, we realized we need a lot more money. Going into Big Pharma is a long path, with compliance, security, posture, among other things to consider.
Hearing them talk about the Zio Patch for A-fib and the glucose monitoring, we saw the consumer space right there. All of these companies may have these technological innovations, but no one strings it together and it's not useful. You have to contract and quarterback all these different disparate technologies to have it work. Hearing that it does work in the space from our partner, and then hearing the need for it firsthand helped us see our window of opportunity.
The third piece came several years later, when we went to our first show at the 2014 bio conference in San Diego. We were following Qualcomm closely and attending their other M-health conferences, understanding what they were doing with their two-net system.
It also helped to have the godfather of mobile health, Don Jones, in our backyard, along with all these celebrity doctors and technologists around. Don is the founder of the M-health at Qualcomm. He was the one to say that mobile health does work and it’s compliant. So, that venue made sense to move forward with Parallel6. We had the ear to the street.
But we still had all this stuff that would scare the crap out of a lot of pharma guys. They would say, “We’re not allowed to see these patients. We can't message them! That's not compliant!” But we said, no, it is—just based on the demographic, you don’t even see their name or PHI.
Long story short, we understood that many companies were starting to catch on and build their own mobile pieces. At the time, we couldn't compete, so we turned our focus to an exit strategy or a partnership in order to continue our growth, but not get eclipsed.
At that conference, I actually ran into a lot of the folks that were on PRA’s IT team. We ended up doing a Cardinal Health study with PRA. After that, Kent [Thoelke] and I had much more intimate conversations, which eventually led to PRA’s acquisition of Parallel6. Coming over to PRA through an organic acquisition certainly felt natural to how PRA conducts itself as a CRO. Having speed-dated several other companies, PRA was a night and day difference in culture. It just made sense to come to PRA. They had the studies. They had the right people. We had the technology.
That first bio conference in in San Diego was definitely a defining moment of my career. The conversations we had with investigators about what Parallel6 could do allowed us to really kickstart our entrepreneurial drive and say, “Let's make this happen.”
As we entered the healthcare space, the latest technology that existed was electronic medical health records.
These are still big implementation systems. The software is expensive, the installation is expensive, and you have to customize it. That takes a couple guys several months with a lot of management. It's like a payroll system.
So, it was just a bunch of these big mainframe technologies that weren’t cloud based. There was very little mobile.
Big Pharma is all notorious for wanting to keep their job. They don't want to do anything different than they have the past years. To jump to mobile and address the whole compliance question was definitely hard. But it took someone that was kind of in that space to help, and that someone was PRA.
We learned that we had to educate, and we still are. Even inside of PRA, it's a big learning curve. How to, and when to, position some of these technologies is not appropriate for everything. It's not a blanket mobile platform. But it just makes sense, especially when talking about something like rare disease, where the geographic distribution is worldwide. All of these questions were answered by the fact that patients always have their phone on them.
People invest in people, and this sentiment permeates through to Parallel6 and PRA’s approach.
PRA is always fit-for-purpose. We invest in understanding a sponsor’s need or possibly serving up that actual need. I know what it's like to have valuable assets. There’s essentially no room for error. But a company still makes the decision on behalf of all the stakeholders and investors to fulfill a need. That company does their homework and they trust the people they end up choosing.
People trust technology to work. The key is, they want to know that you know what you're doing. People will always choose someone they trust and know well.
You have to be compelling in all areas in order to sell to different people. For example, if you’re trying to convince a doctor to use your product, they would ask, “Why would I do this study? It's more paperwork. How is this different?” And you could respond, “Well, there's no paperwork and this is a different method of action.”
If you wanted to sell to the patients, you could let them know they don't have to come all the time. They can just come in twice complete the rest of the trial remotely. That's a huge burden off their family and themselves.
We started to chalk up and understand where that value is; who the real stakeholders are—how they really have to believe in it.
Moving forward, Parallel6’s mobile technology had to fade into PRA’s operations.
Kent and I were talking about how to make sales cycles easier. We always get to sell them on PRA’s capabilities, which in a bid defense really helps. It's a big differentiator.
And then when you get to kick off, your sponsor says, “Wait, what's this line item? What’s this mobile piece? We don't need that.” So, Kent said we should bake in mobile into PRA’s operations budget and make it a part of how we do business. We realize that that's a big shift in thinking. But at some level it just becomes common sense.
It's still a learning curve and it's still a little uncomfortable for folks that are used to doing things differently, but this is how everything is going to be done. Everyone is coming out with their own platform—all of our frenemies and competitors. We are no longer unique, but we were first, so we have the benefit of knowing how to operationalize it a couple of years ahead of these folks. Some people still don't know what to call it. And if it's confusing for them, what will the client think?
PRA has a mobile platform. That's how simple it should be—lose all the names.
Spotlight on Nicole Duffey & Nigel Stenner: The Dream Team
Nicole Duffey, SVP & General Manager of SSD, and Nigel Stenner, VP & General Manager of SSD, met just two years ago, but you’d never know it from…
Healthcare Intelligence: Q&A with Michael Durwin
PRA’s Senior Director of Social Intelligence and Communities, Michael Durwin doesn’t just specialize in social media—he helped pioneer it. In…
Spotlight on Arjen Akkerman: GMP Trailblazer
Many things have changed in the more than 17 years since Arjen Akkerman, Sr. Director of Chemistry Manufacturing Control (CMC) and Qualified Person,…