May 27, 2011
As Doctors Limit Access, Pharma Taps Viscira for Simulations
By Karen A. Frenkel
Veteran ophthalmologist Dr. Richard M. Wong has treated dozens of patients for macular degeneration, an age-related disease that leads to blindness. Though he trained with detailed drawings and photographs of the retina while he was a resident in 1996, he never learned what the condition was like from the patient’s point of view. So in 2008, he jumped at the chance to don a special pair of goggles for a 3-D simulation at an exhibitor’s booth at the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s annual meeting in Atlanta. He saw shadows that grew darker, expanded into puddles, and ultimately flowed together to become seas of darkness. “It was disconcerting and very unnerving,” says Dr. Wong, who practices in Stockton, Calif. Understanding what patients experience “is a very underserved idea,” he says, “but it’s super helpful and timely ...."
The simulation, a form of virtual reality, was a biomedical computer animation produced for Genentech by Viscira, a medical marketing company in San Francisco. Viscira specializes in technology-enabled collateral for pharmaceutical marketers trying to reach doctors. Best known for its computer animations, Viscira produces a slew of products, from applications for mobile devices to continuing education presentations, says Chief Executive Officer Dave Gulezian, 43. The common thread: “scientific accuracy and visual effects that tell a story in an impactful way.”
Gulezian says demand for the 60-employee company’s work is increasing as it gets harder for pharmaceutical sales representatives to call on doctors. A survey by sales strategy consulting firm ZS Associates in Evanston, Ill., pegged the fraction of doctors in 2009 who are open to meeting with sales personnel at 58 percent, down from 71 percent in 2008. According to SK & A, an Irvine, Calif., firm that sells physician and hospital lists, nearly 50 percent of doctors in independent practices require marketers to make appointments rather than unsolicited visits, up from just under 39 percent at the end of 2008. “That’s pretty dramatic,” says SK & A marketing director Jack Schember. “MDs are busier ... they want a quality meeting at a specific time.”
BANNED IN PATIENT-CARE AREAS
Some academic institutions and affiliated hospitals and practices have similar policies. In 2006, Stanford University issued a policy prohibiting pharmaceutical company representatives from entering patient-care areas. The university, in conjunction with Stanford Hospital and Clinics and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, was among the first to allow sales reps access only to non-patient-care areas such as research laboratories -- and only by explicit invitation.
While ZS Associates indicates that the size of the drug industry’s U.S. sales force declined to about 74,000 people as of May, from a peak of 104,000 in 2005, doctors’ demand for the latest breakthroughs and gadgetry is undiminished. Thirty-eight percent of MDs’ smartphone time goes to access clinical or medical information, according to think tank Manhattan Research in New York. Eighty-one percent of U.S. MDs possess smartphones today and 89 percent will have them by 2012, the think tank finds.
Profitable since its founding in 2007, Gulezian says Viscira is well positioned to help marketers reach doctors online and off. He says the company had $8 million in revenue in 2010 and expects to take in $11 million to $12 million during 2011, adding that the first quarter was the company’s best ever. That same quarter it added MedImmune and Celgene (CELG) to a longtime client list that includes Abbott (ABT), Eli Lilly (LLY), and Roche (RHHBY).
“HIGH FIDELITY COMPUTER SIMULATIONS”
Viscira faces direct competition from just a handful of companies, including nearby Eveo in San Francisco, XVivo in Rocky Hill, Conn., and Random 42 Medical Animation in London. “Biomedical imaging is a small field, but it is growing rapidly as better programming tools emerge,” says Kathleen Maher, Editor-in-Chief of TechWatch and a vice-president at Tiburon (Calif.)-based Jon Peddie Research, which tracks the computer graphics and animation industries. While Gulezian describes Viscira’s animations as “photorealistic,” Maher says that because Viscira is “visualizing the unseeable,” the company is really creating “high-fidelity computer simulations.”
Gulezian emphasizes the lengths to which its employees -- technologists, science and medical PhDs, and artists -- go to be accurate and still create striking images of their characters, which usually are molecules that obey the laws of chemistry and physics. The team that was assigned to create an animation for apoptosis (programmed cell death) searched papers for data on molecular chemistry and structure. They also studied how molecules and the cell move and interact, watching real-life movies of apoptosis on YouTube that scientists had created using a scanning electron microscope. “A lot of places don’t do as much research and just say, ‘O.K., there’s a receptor and they make a triangle,’” says Director of Animation Hagop Kaneboughazian, “so their characters are often simplified and diagrammatical looking.” In our animation, “everything looks alive.”
Apart from focusing on scientific accuracy, Viscira -- taking advantage of what Kaneboughazian dubs “the Golden Age of biomedical animation” -- strives for feature film standards by employing former Hollywood techies with experience at integrating animation and live action. “We have to make material engaging and get the message across and excite people,” he says. “MDs love the science, but they also love Star Wars.”
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