Startup Profile: HealthTalker Wants to Harness the Power of Patients to Spread the Word About Prescription Drugs

Next month marks an important anniversary for the pharmaceutical industry, and for HealthTalker founder Andy Levitt: In August 1997 the FDA eased restrictions on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs so that the ads could actually say what the drugs were for. Remember those Claritin ads that spread like ragweed that summer? Blame Levitt. He was the Claritin brand manager at the time and was, along with a colleague, in charge of all of the (wildly successful) direct-to-consumer marketing for the drug.

Which is to say that, more than a lot of people, Levitt understands the power of polished, professional marketing to sell patients on prescription medications. But these days Levitt and his still-wet-behind-the-ears Kendall Square startup are focusing on a more amateur sort of drug marketing, one that lets consumers themselves make the pitch. The idea is to recruit people who use a certain drug or have a certain condition and train them to be “health talkers” who tell their friends and acquaintances—via the company’s social-networking tools or via old-fashioned offline word-of-mouth—about how much a product has helped them.

Levitt argues that people naturally, eagerly talk about this type of thing all the time (the contractors who recently renovated his apartment had plenty of good things to say about erectile-dysfunction drugs, evidently) but that “the pharma industry hasn’t done enough to tap into those conversations.” The tricky part in helping drug companies do so, he says, is making sure, through training, that their citizen “ambassadors” don’t run afoul of the still-complicated regulations that govern direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing. If a health talker says a drug approved only for diabetes really helped with her arthritis, for instance, it would be like a TV ad promoting the same “off-label” use of the drug—and that’s a big no-no.

There are already other outfits that employ social networking platforms for word-of-mouth marketing (Levitt mentions Boston firm BzzAgent and Procter & Gamble’s Tremor). But Levitt says that because of the regulatory challenges, “no other company does what HealthTalker does–play specifically in the niche of Rx products.”

From what Levitt will reveal (which is not a lot; he only started working on the project in earnest in February and is still shy about publicity) drug companies are eager to join the game. HealthTalker is slated to launch its first campaign in September, with three more planned tentatively for 2008. Not bad for a months-old company financed exclusively by Levitt’s personal savings and a home-equity line of credit and staffed until now by Levitt alone.

Last week, in preparation for the addition of HealthTalker’s first employee, Levitt moved the company from his dining room table into an office in a local incubator. Handing over the first rent check marked a hard transition after so much bootstrapping, he says, but it was time. “Now I need to grow up a little bit,” he says.

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