Interview with PeerClip CEO, Scott McQuigg (transcript)

This is a transcript of my recent podcast interview with Scott McQuigg, CEO of PeerClip.

David Williams: This is David Williams, co-founder of MedPharma Partners and author of the Health Business Blog. PeerClip is a brand new social-media company, which enables U.S. physicians to organize their medical literature online and to share and discuss content with their peers. Users can also take advantage of PeerClip’s automated tools to discover other useful content.

I spoke earlier today with PeerClip’s CEO, Scott McQuigg. He provided an update on PeerClip’s ongoing public beta and evolving business model. He also spoke about the implications of Sermo’s recent deal with Pfizer and told me why PeerClip’s initial users are limited to the U.S.

Scott, thanks for joining me today.

Scott McQuigg: My pleasure.

David: Scott, what is PeerClip?

Scott: PeerClip is a tool to help physicians organize relevant medical information that they find online. As you know, David, there is a large amount of information that is moving online, not only from scientific journals that are opening up access online, but to blogs, to podcasts, to video postings and to online peer forms. And what we found in talking to a number of physicians is that they didn’t have a tool to help them organize the information that was moving online.

I am sure you are aware of social bookmarking. Social bookmarking is a social-media tool that has caught on well outside of health care. And so we have decided to create a version of that that was specifically tailored for physicians; that is what PeerClip is. So, the first value proposition of PeerClip is it is a tool that easily allows them to organize information that they find online, that they deem to be relevant for future access or to reference again in the future.

The second value proposition of PeerClip is that PeerClip understands the user’s profile and the types of articles or online resources that they are bookmarking for future reference and begins to recommend other content that is in the PeerClip system that has been placed there by another physician and begins to recommend other relevant content to users. So, we think that is a pretty powerful part of what PeerClip does.

The third piece of what PeerClip is –to answer your question– is that it is also an opportunity for peers to understand what their peers are reading. And so there is a part of PeerClip that allows users to have visibility into what their peers are reading and maybe a peer in your clinical practice or maybe a peer at your hospital or maybe a colleague whom you went to medical school with or maybe a key opinion leader or thought leader that you follow in the marketplace. There is a part of PeerClip that allows you to connect with other peers and then have a view into the medical information that they deem to be relevant.

David: When you talk about organizing information online, what form does that organization take? You talked about bookmarking, but how does the physician actually organize their information using PeerClip?

Scott: I suspect that there are some physicians out there who use other social bookmarking tools, but the vast majority of physicians have organized relevant medical information that they find offline. So, a physician finds an article online, prints it out, saves it for future reference or even –until recently– read something offline and saved it in their library.

I happened to be visiting an oncologists’ office recently. Within their library they had a wall of all the medical journals that they received. And admittedly, they said it was hard to go back and find something that they had read in one of those journals that they deemed to be relevant for future reference. Although it is all there in the offline world, in their library, they can go in and put their hands on it, it wasn’t a great system for that physician to be able to find a particular article that was relevant to them. With PeerClip, if you read that article online, you could save that article into your PeerClip personal home page. And that article or that link to that article is there for future reference anytime you want to go and visit it.

But we’re also adding some other value to that in the sense that the user can rate that article, they can write a comment on it, and they can also do what’s called “keyword tagging,” meaning that they can have a string of keywords that they associate with that article that then places that article or that particular piece of content in a number of different folders that are associated with the terms that they’ve assigned to that particular piece of content. There’s one other piece of that too, and that is it also begins to give them a view into how many other physicians have also bookmarked the same article or piece of content online and how those physicians rated it and also how they might have commented on the article.

David: The functionality sounds pretty powerful. I can see why a physician could get a lot out of using it. I wonder though, since physicians tend to be pretty busy, unless they make a complete transition to using PeerClip, they’re still going to have to maintain their offline article and then be organizing whatever they’re finding online and then having to look for a time to see these other articles that are being referred to them based upon their profile, and do the tagging and so on… Do people get hung up in a transition phase or do they go all or nothing or is it actually not such a burden?

Scott: Well, you’re definitely right David. I’m sure there is a transition phase for a certain number of physicians. But we’ve tried to develop PeerClip so that it’s easy to use and easy to implement. It’s a simple piece of technology that installs into a physician’s web browser and that functionality of adding a bookmark travels with the physician into whatever website they’re on. And so it’s really just a click away, once you’ve found something that’s relevant, to add it to your PeerClip home page.

So we’ve simply created a tool that travels with the physician during their normal online consumption habits and it works whether they’re at the British Medical Journal or whether they’re at the New England Journal of Medicine site or whether they’re on a blog or a podcast that they’ve found, or whether they’ve found a CME activity that they want to save for future reference.

So we’ve got a functionality that rides with that physician wherever they are. I’m not sure PeerClip in and of itself is the reason that we’re going to move physicians totally online, but I think it’s a valuable tool that makes their job easier and actually makes them more efficient by being able to quickly save something that they find that’s relevant.

David: Would you expect that publishers would act differently assuming that PeerClip becomes very popular? Would they have any thoughts in terms of how they organize their content online to make it more easily clippable or to appeal to your audience?

Scott: That’s a great question and what we’ve seen work outside of the healthcare industry is that once social bookmarking became widely adopted and tools such as Digg and del.icio.us started to achieve critical mass, publishers began actually integrating the functionality for their users to be able to bookmark something right into their site, so that every piece of content at many publishers now has an icon beneath it that allows users to bookmark a piece of content into a Digg and del.icio.us account.

Our hope is that as PeerClip continues to grow in the number of users, that publishers in health care have a similar approach and see it as a user experience or a user value that they want to offer to the users of their site, the ability to be able to reference something in the future. There’s also another value for publishers, and we think that’s because of the recommendation engine. As more users are bookmarking a piece of content from a particular source, it’s going to rise higher in the recommendation engine and thus will be helping physicians discover an article or a piece of content that may have originally passed them by. And we think that is valuable for the publisher as well.

David: You talked about having functionality that is designed for a physician in the way a physician organizes information. And another piece of it was the fact that physicians are interested in what their peers are reading. Is the community explicitly limited to physicians?

Scott: PeerClip is what we call a closed community for MDs, DOs, physician assistants and nurse practitioners. Those are the four clinicians that coordinate care and have the ability to write prescriptions. And so the thought is that those are your peers whom you interact with when you are trying to coordinate care for a patient. And so the idea behind PeerClip is let’s have the community be exclusive, so that you know that the user that is placing the piece of content into PeerClip has the background and experience to determine if it is relevant.

The idea is that this is the same group of people that you would interact with in a hospital setting or maybe in your practice or when you participate in your medical society’s conference. So why not translate that same group to PeerClip? That’s not to say that there aren’t other valuable people who are part of the health care contingent, but we have started PeerClip exclusively for that set of clinicians.

David: One of the physician social networking companies that started a little bit before PeerClip is called Sermo. They had a deal with the AMA and now recently with Pfizer where in addition to having physicians in the conversations, you are going to have representatives from Pfizer and perhaps over time other drug companies or commercial entities. Is there something similar in store for PeerClip and what do you think of what Sermo has done?

Scott: Well, first of all, congratulations to Sermo. Their recent announcement with Pfizer I think has created a lot of buzz in the social-media community on top of the early success that we have all witnessed with Sermo. They certainly have a great product and I think their announcement with Pfizer demonstrates that there are manufacturers out there who are adopting social media as a way to engage physicians.

We also think that their announcement will further accelerate the demand for social-media opportunities amongst pharmaceutical manufacturers as well as med device manufacturers. So, we think it is an exciting development and again congratulations to them on pulling off something that has really gotten the entire industry talking about how social media intersects with connectivity, with physicians.

We think our value proposition is a little bit different for physicians than theirs. We are very much a tool that is provided to physicians to help them organize relevant medical information. We know through our research that physicians on average spend anywhere from one to three hours a week trying to keep current. And they all say that regardless of investing that time, they never feel like they are current nor do they feel like they’re reading what is most relevant.

And so PeerClip really combines the way physicians prefer to gain knowledge –through the journals and the scientific literature that they need to read, but may not have time to– but it also brings in their preferred way of getting knowledge and that is through interaction with their peers.

There are probably some similarities to what we do if you think about it as social media with Sermo. But in reality we think the value proposition of first being able to organize relevant medical information and being able to discover relevant medical information that your peers have added to PeerClip, we think is a pretty powerful offering and different from what we have seen other social media companies offering.

David: Do you think that time people spend on PeerClip is going to be a direct substitution for the one to three hours per week that they would be using now to stay current, or would there be some integration with other tools or integration into practice. For example might they try using PeerClip at the point of care when a particular issue comes up and try to search for a particular topic right on the spot, like they might do for example with UpToDate?

Scott: As PeerClip gains in critical mass, the value of PeerClip as a search functionality is pretty powerful, because then you’ll be searching resources that a peer has already deemed to be relevant. The challenge that physicians have is that the field of practicing medicine has moved from a field of science to really a field of information, particularly when you think about the protocols that are being driven by payers and hospitals. With evidence based guidelines, the ability to quickly assess information is an important part of a physician’s job. And not only quickly assessing it, but being able to manage the vast amount of information, quickly getting to what’s relevant.

We think PeerClip will help with that. Whether it replaces your need to invest an hour to three hours a week in reading and consuming medical information, I’m not sure about that, however I do think that it will make that time more efficient and more valuable and more focused for them. Because hopefully they’ll be using PeerClip at some point to determine what they should be investing time to read.

David: This wouldn’t be an issue at the beginning, but I’m thinking about once PeerClip had been used for several years… is there an issue about how relevancy is adjusted over time? In other words, finding what might be very relevant today, that same article might be much less relevant in a few years as the field moves on, and yet a lot of people would have clipped it including key opinion leaders. Is there any thought of how you deal with that kind of an issue or is it not a real issue?

Scott: It’s an interesting question. Probably time does begin to factor in. Out of the gate we have an algorithm that works on a recommendation engine that recommends articles first based on the user’s profile, and second based on the user’s bookmarking habits. But behind that is another set of algorithms that are driven by the sources of content that we recommend.

But I would also say that as physicians use and refresh PeerClip, hopefully the best relevancy factor that we can use is does a physician user think it’s relevant? Hopefully they’ll continue to adapt their own personal relevancy filter, and I think that as more and more physicians understand the science behind evidence-based medicine, hopefully the community of physicians using PeerClip will evolve and their personal relevancy filters will evolve with time as well.

David: My understanding of a lot of social media out there is that a fairly small percentage of the total user base is driving a lot of the content. Is that something that you expect to be the case in PeerClip, and what might be the profile of a user that’s in that power user category?

Scott: You’re exactly right. Today we’re in what I would call an early adoption phase. People who understand the value of social media, who are probably a little bit more technically savvy, are the first adopters. Those first adopters represent a disproportionate amount of user generated content that would be on PeerClip or any other social media site for physicians. It’s one of the reasons why we really got back to how easy PeerClip is to use, and the fact that it rides along with the physician during their normal consumption habits.

So we’ve tried to create something that regardless of your technical skill, regardless of whether you used a social media application before, regardless of whether you came out of medical school today or 15 years ago, that this is something that a physician would know how to use. We’ve really gotten it down to the basics. If you know how to use the Internet and you know how to click then you should be able to bookmark an article in PeerClip.

David: Tell me where you stand now in terms of the product. I noticed it still says “beta” on the site. What are you doing product-wise, and then also what are you doing in order to build a community of users and how do you see that evolving over the next year or two?

Scott: Well, I think one of the great things that’s happened for anybody who is creating a new web application is that the community of early users have become accustomed to the fact that it’s OK to participate in a “public beta”, whereas maybe a dozen years ago you would never think about releasing your product until it’s been fully tested behind a closed door by a user group. But now it’s completely OK to launch in beta. They still have an expectation that it’s going to work, but they don’t mind helping you and providing suggestions. They don’t mind helping you work out some of the bugs that maybe aren’t getting caught in the development process.

All that’s to say we are in public beta. We launched public beta back in late September. And we envision that going for probably another six to eight weeks. Then what we’ll do is move into what we call a truly live site. So it will be truly live PeerClip. We will have incorporated the feedback from our first group of beta users. And then we’ll really start our marketing efforts.

Once we get through that beta period, we’ll be turning it on to the broader community and then starting our marketing efforts, which will still rely heavily on the viral opportunity, but we will also do some things from a marketing prospective to tap into some more traditional means and channels.

David: What can you tell me about the business model? How are you thinking of generating revenue in the near term and then in the longer term?

Scott: I’d be glad to share. The way you phrased the question is probably the right way, David. The exciting thing that’s happened since we have launched PeerClip –even though it’s in public beta we’ve had a lot of interesting discussions with entities about how it could be integrated into their offerings or how it could be used to help them in some connectivity that they’re looking for with their physician customers.

We had a very clear path right at launch of what we thought the revenue model was. It’s quickly expanding for us, which I think is one of the real benefits of getting a product out.
I will tell you about what we have started with in mind as the business model and share with you a little bit about the kinds of discussions we’re having as it evolves. We thought of this as a product that would be sponsored by pharmaceutical and device manufacturers. The ability to be present when people are bookmarking and referring to their bookmarks we found to be a very interesting opportunity for potential sponsors and we’re in active discussions with a number of companies right now related to their participation when we go live with the site and once we have completed our public beta.

That’s what we have kind of built our model on. That’s what we said was the opportunity. What’s quickly come out of those discussions and additional discussions has been that there’s probably a pretty robust data opportunity as we gain critical mass in certain therapeutic areas –on a de-identified, global basis: How are cardiologists reacting to this type of research, or this type of resource? What are the articles? Or what are the clinical articles or scientific articles that are generating the most comments, that are being the most highly rated? Those are the kind of things that we’ve also had people engage us on. As we build critical mass, there’s a pretty interesting data opportunity here.

And the third piece is that we have had a number of entities ask can we create a private use of PeerClip within our practice, within our hospital, within some setting, where it’s a defined user group? And that’s a very exciting line of discussions we’re having just in the four weeks that we have had PeerClip in public beta. We now think it will be a pretty exciting part of our future.

David: What do you think it takes to get to critical mass? Do you define that in terms of the number of users or what other metrics do you use? And is there a difference in critical mass for what makes the site useful for individual users, compared to what makes it commercially exciting for the sponsors?

Scott: It’s a great question. I can tell you what we think the answer is today at four weeks into PeerClip. We think critical mass is defined a couple of ways. Certainly there is a global perspective. How many physicians have signed up and are actively bookmarking content into PeerClip? That’s one number that we will certainly be measuring.

I think we’re excited by the success of other social media sites for physicians that have had success and been publicly noting where their user bases are at certain inflection points in their companies’ history.

I think of critical mass in another way as well. Let’s say for example we have — make up a number — 50,000 doctors on PeerClip at some point. Critical mass, we’re going to certainly think about it in the global perspective. But how many cardiologists do we have in PeerClip? And are there enough cardiologists in PeerClip that are really adding value for the other cardiologists who are using it? Are we helping physicians discover enough information from their peers? Is there a big enough peer network to be able to view what their peers are reading and bookmarking? So, I think critical mass is going to be measured two ways.

We’re going to look at the global critical mass, but we’re also going to look at the critical mass by therapeutic area or specialty.

David: I’m sure that a lot of the sponsors that you are looking at and possibly the particular individuals that those sponsors would be looking at are U.S. prescribers. But it’s likely with the Internet that you’re going to get people from all over the world who are using it and somebody who, perhaps, is in a country — let’s say India, the Philippines, Thailand — who may or may not be a big prescriber and in fact may be prescribing generic versions or drugs that are just a lot less profitable for the pharmaceutical companies. It could be very valuable for the community and not so valuable for the sponsors. I’m wondering if you’ve given any thought to the international dimension of what you’re doing.

Scott: We certainly have. I don’t think we have the complete answer to it as of yet. One of our advisors at the company does a lot of work internationally. He’s a physician who is involved in a number of international consortia. And he already wants to invite his international colleagues to participate in PeerClip.

So, your point is spot on, David. And that is that the value of PeerClip certainly goes far beyond the U.S. marketplace for physicians. The challenge is, because PeerClip is a closed community for physicians and we are dynamically validating who those physicians are at sign-up, the challenge right now is finding a database that helps us validate international physicians.

David: I have been speaking today with Scott McQuigg who is the CEO of PeerClip. Scott, thanks very much for your time today.

Scott: Thanks, David, and thanks for your interest in PeerClip.

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