Before colaunching her successful entrepreneurial venture, MedAvante, Amy Fershko Ellis, ’80, excelled in a corporate environment, leading product development across a dizzying array of more than 20 consumer, business, and health-care categories, from chewing gum to perfume. Throughout her career, her creative vision and marketing acumen have earned her industry recognition as an innovative brand builder. But she doesn’t attribute her success to the alchemy of being an “innovator.” She attributes it to her approach as an “empiricist.”
“It wasn’t only because I was more innovative,” she says. “It’s also because I was able to follow the data, and I think that is one of the hardest things to do without being biased by the status quo.”
As the director of marketing of personal care new products at Church & Dwight, Ellis successfully introduced two new national brands by leveraging unique attributes of the company’s Arm & Hammer™ Baking Soda brand. The antiperspirant/deodorant brand she launched in 1994 is still in distribution. Her Arm & Hammer™ Dental Care Gum combined the primary category benefit of refreshment with clinically supported oral-health claims. Every element of the marketing mix supported its premium pricing in the $2.6 billion gum category in the United States, previously a value-priced category. It won the
American Marketing Association’s Edison Award as the 1998 Best New Product of the Year.
Ellis has never been content to rest on her laurels. She is a tireless, self-described “problem solver.” Having thrived after Booth in a succession of high-level corporate roles in new product development, Ellis at first had little interest when her former colleague and close friend Paul Gilbert asked her to join him in an entrepreneurial venture. But on reflection, Ellis realized it was time to leave the security of a corporate career and pursue entrepreneurial opportunities. And pursue it she did—with a vengeance.
In 2002, Ellis partnered with Gilbert to launch a new company that was well outside of the world of consumer packaged goods. They founded MedAvante, pioneering a way to make clinical trials for mental health drugs faster and more conclusive, so that much-needed therapies could win approval and go to market. Vetting opportunities with her essential P’s of new product success (painful, pivotal, preemptive, and proprietary), Ellis saw that MedAvante checked all the boxes.
Its first product, Centralized Ratings, changed the paradigm of how human clinical drug trials were run. MedAvante removed each drug’s assessment from the local investigative sites and had their own remote researchers evaluate the drug via telecom to minimize, if not eliminate, the pernicious effect of expectation biases. Prior to MedAvante’s remote assessment model, local researchers—based on their extended contact with their subjects—often rated what they expected to find, not what an objective application of the instruments would have found. MedAvante demonstrated one could bring the high rate of inconclusive trials down to the single digits from a greater than 50 percent failure rate, even with known effective drugs.
The early ups and downs for the startup were steep. Ellis didn’t take a salary for the first three years while building up MedAvante. Her first “office”
was a shared secretary’s desk in an investor’s office. Later, her office was a space her team cleaned, painted, and furnished themselves. Eventually, the company secured a space more in line with corporate America.
Despite the physical and emotional hardships, “there is nothing like the freedom of being your own boss and in control of the decision making,” Ellis says. “I look around now, and my company is really making a difference.”
MedAvante became a global provider of technology-enabled signal detection solutions in clinical trials of treatments for central nervous system disorders. After a decade of experience in improving clinician-reported diagnostic and outcome measurements, the company’s orders hit $50 million in 2012.
After 2012’s success with MedAvante, Ellis’s journey brought her extraordinary challenges, both professionally and personally. In 2013, Big Pharma companies decided on an across-the-board cut to investment in mental health treatments research. MedAvante’s sales plummeted to $10 million, and the company’s future became uncertain.
But Ellis and her team realized that they were sitting on technology inventions that could be refitted and monetized by selling to the entire drug development category. In 2008, MedAvante invented what is now called eSource, the real-time electronic capture of study data for its own researchers and project managers to internally track clinical trial data and enter it seamlessly into a cloud database. By cutting down on the massive amounts of paper used in trials, MedAvante was able to globalize with extraordinarily small teams.
In addition, the fully digital platform eliminated inconsistency and numerous recording errors made in the cumbersome existing data entry process. Armed with that insight, and under Ellis’s leadership, MedAvante pivoted to create a new software-as-a-service product, the Virgil® eSource Platform, combined with the provision of expert clinical services. Virgil launched in the third quarter of 2014 to the pharmaceutical industry for use in all of its global drug trials for
all therapeutic areas. Two and a half years after launch, Virgil will deliver well over $100 million in contracts in 2017. The final proof of the company’s success: this spring, MedAvante was acquired for an extraordinary valuation in its category.
Yet even as Ellis struggled to bring MedAvante back to its high point as a company, she faced a life-altering personal challenge. “I recovered from cancer two years ago and went through the whole thing: surgery, chemo, radiation,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘I haven’t done what I wanted to do yet.’” Instead of being overwhelmed by her responsibilities to the demanding venture in the face of her illness, Ellis found this as a source of inspiration in her work. Her vision was to create something sustainable, something that gives back to the greater good—a company that provides real opportunity for people.
“When you come to MedAvante, you can be assured that if you have talent, whether you are older, whether you have no college degree, if you can contribute something to make us successful, we will hire you and use you to your fullest ability,” Ellis says. After all is said and done, Ellis and everyone at MedAvante believe “our team and teamwork is the secret sauce of our success.”