Ad-ventures in Marketing XIII

For the thirteenth year, Med Ad News has chosen new Pharmaceutical Marketing Ventures to Watch that could change the way pharmaceutical products are marketed and sold. 

By Joshua Slatko • [email protected] 

This past October, the Med Ad News team began its annual search for the future of pharmaceutical marketing. We sought out young companies, spin-offs, offerings, and ventures to profile that are providing the most innovative and interesting products, services, or marketing opportunities to pharma companies and the healthcare community. This year’s two profilees each take on one of pharma marketing’s modern challenges: for the first, the increasing migration of patients and physicians towards telemedicine; and, for the second, the vast amount of data that pharma companies are accumulating and the difficulty of making access to that data and the insights it provides quick and easy for the decision maker. Here are Med Ad News’ newest Pharmaceutical Marketing Ventures to Watch: Populus Media and WhizAI. 

Populus Media

Populus Media is a new platform that enables pharma and other health brands to reach healthcare consumers before and after virtual telehealth consultations with physicians. The platform also offers pharma brands customized telehealth-based DTC channels through its Populus Custom Connect platform. Founded in stealth mode in May 2019 and officially launched to the marketplace seven months later, Populus has already secured partnerships with five telehealth providers and signed on 22 pharma clients, including J&J, Sanofi, Bayer, Takeda, and Teva.

Populus’ Custom Connect powers the“Talk to your doctor” widget on the Phexxi website; it’s the first step on a fully compliant path to a telehealth consultation.

“We partner with telehealth companies to create a network where we aggregate all the telehealth visits by patient reason for visit creating a content and marketing opportunity,” says Ray Rotolo, Populus’ chief product officer and co-founder. “We also have a network that creates a path that can lead a consumer from awareness to prescription through telehealth consultations.”

Populus’ founding team had experience in healthcare media both on the buying and network sides, with emphasis on point of care media, media in doctors’ offices. One of the founders was a founder and CEO of several media agencies, another is a former co-founder of Health Media Networks (a large PoC media network), and the company’s CTO developed programmatic networks for healthcare.

“We had a renewed interest in point of care in early 2019 and began to look at what opportunities existed (creating a new network or acquiring one),” Rotolo told Med Ad News. “As we researched we found one thing that kept popping up, and that was the expansion of PoC outside of the physical office into virtual care/telehealth.” 

When the team looked at the expected trajectory of telehealth it excited them even more – and that was pre-COVID. “Our a-ha moment, so to speak, came as we researched more closely into the telehealth structure and found two key opportunities,” Rotolo says. “First, patients satisfaction was low due to any real attempt to engage the patient. Just get them through the consultation. And second, there was no marketing of any kind done at scale. Maybe a couple of one-offs but nothing more than that.”

Those discoveries led to Populus’ vision of taking a very familiar experience for a patient, the traditional in-office PoC media, and bringing that same formula to telehealth – content plus sponsorship. Add to that the ability to create higher patient engagement and it was, Rotolo says, a winner, with patients and physicians, not to mention pharma clients, responding well. 

“To date, the response has been positive,” Rotolo says. “The reason, we believe, is our patient-first strategy. Our goal first and foremost is to create a better overall patient experience, which leads to better outcomes for all stakeholders including patient, HCP, telehealth, and brand. We try to keep relevant and engaging. This is not about disrupting.”

Rotolo and Populus are quite serious about not disrupting; in fact he is careful to advise clients that telehealth is really just another flavor of the point of care channel. “(The content should be) very similar to the traditional point of care marketing in-office,” he says. “The key is to be relevant. We utilize relevant content along with brand sponsorship to engage patients. Keep it relevant, keep it meaningful, keep it informative. That is what resonates. It’s probably not the best environment for long-form content (more than five minutes), but as the channel evolves there could be a place for very creative opportunities.”

What does the process of developing content look like for a brand client? Rotolo emphasizes simplicity and tying the right objectives to the right patient visits. “We create opportunities throughout a visit, meaning all three components of a visit – pre-visit, waiting room, and post-visit,” Rotolo told Med Ad News. “We work with a brand/agency to align strategic objectives and creative considerations to the right visits (by condition or symptom) and then leveraging the necessary components of the visit along with the right creative to meet their objectives. We are also very cognizant of the fact that our telehealth partner’s first obligation is to deliver healthcare to their patients, so we always make sure the experience is relevant, meaningful, and engaging.”

A telehealth waiting room video used on the Populus platform.

Another part of Populus’ offering is its DTC distribution model, Custom Connect. Custom Connect uses a call to action mechanism that lives on or any other paid or owned digital asset a brand may have. Once a consumer/patient clicks on that CTA, they are transported into a customized path that, first, qualifies them for the med or therapy, and then, once qualified, leads them to a telehealth consultation with a physician to confirm and then write a prescription (It’s the physician’s decision whether the script should actually be written). All this is done in a fully compliant (HIPPA, CCPA, GDPR) environment. Populus also provides a custom dashboard so an agency/brand can track the ongoing performance of the program in real-time. And the platform manages prior authorizations if needed, as well as ongoing communication with patients for refills, et cetera. 

“[Custom Connect] is built to leverage a brand’s digital assets to bring consumers/patients through the funnel of awareness, discovery, qualification, and script,” Rotolo says. “It’s changing the way brands think of, ‘Ask your doctor’ messaging. We recently helped a new pharma brand to launch to market using a telehealth first strategy and it’s been tremendously successful to date.”

Looking to the future, Populus’ primary short term goal is to continue to advance the product for the evolving marketplace. “That means expanding our targeting capabilities, build in additional data, and create new creative opportunities,” Rotolo told Med Ad News. “Our focus has been 100 percent patient but we will be launching an HCP targeting product in early 2021 for that side of the business. Of course, we also continue to partner with as many telehealth companies as we can to scale our network. Our long term goal is to look internationally. There is huge opportunity outside of the United States, where telehealth is also thriving.”

Free of dashboards, dropdown menus, and other typical business intelligence platform complexities, WhizAI has distilled interaction with data down to one step: ask a question, get an answer.


WhizAI is a business intelligence platform and interface purpose-built with pre-trained AI for life sciences. Users can simply ask a question about sales, market access, patient services, clinical trials, or virtually anything else, and WhizAI answers it instantly. The platform can take questions via talk, text, or app – “Just as easy as asking a colleague,” its creators say – and respond in any degree of granularity, with instant information for use in sales meetings, physician details, quarterly reviews, or anywhere else data-driven insights might be useful. Best of all, perhaps, is that WhizAI is designed “for the rest of us” – using it requires little training and no technical skill beyond the ability to send a text on a smartphone. As one pharma sales territory manager has said, “I used it today in the lobby of a hospital to quickly check recent buys and market share trends. The app is virtually idiot proof. I didn’t have the directions or cheat sheet and just texted what I wanted and WhizAI found it.”

The story of this extraordinary business tool began when one of its creators was working with a nonprofit to develop an AI-enabled low-cost wearable device to help patients with ALS communicate and control devices with eye movement. “These patients are unable to speak, move, or talk,” says Amitabh Patil, co-founder and chief technology officer of WhizAI. “Our system enabled them to communicate with visitors and control their mobile and other devices like TV, AC, or tablets. The device leveraged AI augmentation and predictive capabilities to make it super easy to make selections in user interfaces and type with high accuracy and speed.”

Inspired by the power that AI had to give ALS patients a voice and make accessing information easy for them, Patil began brainstorming with one of his colleagues, Rohit Vashisht, about other use cases that could benefit from a similar system. With more than 20 years of experience each in business intelligence technology, Patil and Vashisht had frequently observed how typical business users struggle to make sense of data and access insights from analysis in a timely way. 

“We began to explore how this technology could help business users use AI and data to enhance their daily activities – and although the mechanism would be different, similarly to how technology helped patients with ALS,” Patil told Med Ad News. “With my experience with natural language processing early in my career, we developed the vision of technology that would allow users to simply ask questions to get the insights they need. The unit of work could transition from the heavy and complex dashboard to direct access to answers to business questions – and the system would learn users’ behaviors and provide the answers before they even ask for them. We knew users struggled with complex tools and multiple dashboards, but every life sciences role relies heavily on data. Our vision was to make using the platform as easy as using a consumer app.”

The end result is a picture of simplicity: users ask a question and WhizAI answers. Unlike a voice assistant, though, WhizAI works with business data and provides interactive visualizations that answer complex questions in ways that are fast and easy to understand. “We paint a picture rather than giving a programmed response,” Patil says. “After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Also, WhizAI is contextual and keeps learning and personalizing its responses. The more a user interacts with it, the more WhizAI begins to understand insights that are most important to the user and even what time of day they need them.”

Feedback from users, WhizAI leaders say, has been overwhelmingly positive; they claim an adoption rate of 100 percent. And as with any good AI platform, that feedback is also helping to improve its capabilities. 

“Feedback from users helps us pinpoint specific issues with user experience and also new functionality they are looking for,” Patil says. “For example, users don’t just want a report on the status quo. They also want to know the next best actions to take. As a result, we are working on ways to make WhizAI more prescriptive. Users also want to understand more than what is happening – they want to know why. We’re also looking at ways to enhance the technology’s causal analysis capabilities. We are committed to continually enhancing and improving the product.”

Why does WhizAI look and respond the way it does? According to Patil, two key ideas underpin the company’s approach to its user interface.

“First, people are used to using voice apps and texting – it’s the direction the world is going,” he says. “We are trying to make using WhizAI as close as possible to the experiences people have when using their phones or apps. 

“Second, most of our competitors are dashboard heavy. Users develop dashboard fatigue from too many clunky user interfaces, too much data, too many dropdowns. That’s the old way of extracting information from data. WhizAI is next-gen technology that provides access to insights through natural language and provides visualizations with simple clicks, so users instantly comprehend data analysis results.”

But of course the user interface isn’t the entire story. Underneath the hood, a great deal of advanced data crunching is going on. WhizAI’s technology has NLP, machine learning, data analytics, visualization, and Insights AI at its core. It combines these technologies into a single platform. 

“To make WhizAI work, you first have to attach it to data sources,” Patil says. “It is designed to scale to billions of records and work quickly. That’s where most companies’ problems now are – looking for insights is like digging for gold in a huge mine. Without AI, it’s difficult and time-consuming to find what you’re looking for. With WhizAI, companies can work with data warehouses, ERP systems, transactional systems, NoSQL systems – virtually any database with information a life sciences team would need to factor into analysis.”

The second phase is training – not for the users but for the platform itself. “WhizAI is pre-trained on life sciences data, which is a key differentiator for us,” Patil says. “Other systems are developed to work across different industries, so they don’t work as well for life sciences, which has its own vocabulary and complex data sets. WhizAI is self-training, learning from the data sources to which it is connected. Once self-training is completed, it’s fine-tuned for the specific company that will use it.”

And all this can happen relatively quickly. “While our competitors take months to deliver a solution, we deliver in four to six weeks, and then users can use WhizAI out of the box from day one and need no training.”

The WhizAI developers are not shy about their vision for the platform. They are aiming for world domination – or at least domination of the world of life sciences business intelligence. 

“We envision everyone in life sciences using our product in a few years,” Patil told Med Ad News. “To achieve this, we are continuously improving our AI to understand vernacular, data, and life science ecosystems. No AI system is perfect today – voice systems often don’t perform well when the user has an accent or poses questions in unique ways. But they’re evolving, and so are we. We are working to make our technology simpler for the user and to deliver insights in optimal ways. We also want to learn more about the life sciences industry. A deeper understanding will enable us to teach WhizAI to deliver the most relevant responses, and we’ll also be able to provide deeper causal analysis with a better understanding of the domain.”

And of course the ultimate innovation isn’t far behind – answering questions before they are asked. 

“We also envision the system advancing to the point where the user doesn’t have to ask,” Patil says. “It can learn so much about the user that it automatically provides insights when needed — a true intelligence solution for life sciences companies.”