Artemis Institute for Clinical Research helps to advance groundbreaking treatments. A challenge in this line of work: getting people in the door.
The San Diego company runs clinical trials that help scientists and regulators gauge a treatment’s effectiveness. But with uncertainty or even fears over testing, Artemis makes a point to educate — and highlight the societal need.
There’s also an emphasis on customer service, a mantra that may be cliché in restaurants and grocery stores, but comes across as novel in clinical trials.
“They’re taking the leap here, so we need to honor their involvement in a research study,” said CEO Vishaal Mehra. “It holds true for every business, and we’re no different, if you deliver fantastic customer service people will come back.’”
The privately held company looks to be on to something. Artemis reported $9.7 million in 2017 revenue, a substantial jump from $6.7 million in 2016 and $4.4 million the prior year. This year, Artemis projects $11 million to $12 million in revenue.
The company boasts 60 employees across a Hillcrest, San Marcos and recently opened Riverside location.
The clinical trial space is fragmented, though there are a handful of major players like PRA Health Sciences. That’s according to John Babitt, a partner in transaction advisory services in life sciences for Ernst & Young.
Babitt said these companies must balance quick enrollment with finding large patient sets reflective of the population. Regulators and health payers have increasingly sought inclusive data.
Demand for Diversity
Mehra cited this demand for diversity as a major reason for calling the region home. San Diego and Riverside, a tapestry of ethnicities and races partly on account of being a border region, ticks this box.
Mehra and his wife, medical director Purvi Mehra, lead the business. Being a husband-wife team jokingly earned them the nickname “the Jay-Z and Beyonce of clinical trials” among employees.
Clients have included major pharmaceuticals like Merck, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, along with San Diego biotechs such as Samumed.
“You name it we’ve worked with them,” Mehra said.
For savings and speed, drugmakers outsource clinical trials — necessary to obtain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval — to outside entities. Much of this work is done in hospitals, which Mehra characterized as often sterile with long waits.
Prompt Attention and Amenities
As a contrast, Artemis tries to see patients within five minutes. Study sessions can run as long as four hours, so participants receive meals and snacks. Netflix too. It’s drilled into employees to go above a typical patient-doctor relationship.
“We go out of our way to say this is not going to be your typical doctor’s appointment,” Mehra said, noting the company’s database includes 22,000 patients, a good chunk of whom re-enroll in studies.
Clearing Up Misperceptions
Artemis is up against reluctance: Only about 35 percent of consumers and physicians nationally surveyed by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in 2016 said they would consider taking part in a clinical trial.
Through its website, a call center, and patient concierge service, Artemis walks would-be participants through the process — and clears up misconceptions. For example: drugmakers don’t have free rein — an independent review board scrutinizes study safety protocols and risk factors before signing off.
Another frequently asked question: What happens if I get sicker during the trial? There is potential, Artemis’ website notes, for symptoms to worsen during any research study, though its physicians consider health and safety throughout all study phases. The company also provides two months of care after the study, and patients can leave before studies end for any reason.
Pitch for Altruism
Study participants are paid, an economic incentive. But Artemis also makes a pitch for altruism. Many patients are swayed by a desire to aid in ushering through a first-of-its-kind treatment.
“It’s saying, ‘Hey this is important. This is how all of us at the table are getting the new treatments we need. The Tylenol that you’re taking had to go through the same research process,’” Mehra said. He added the industry as a whole could do better in communicating this point.
Artemis targets study candidates through new and old media avenues. Facebook, for example, has proven effective in engaging those with osteoarthritis. Schizophrenia patients respond to print and late-night TV ads, the company has found, according to Mehra.
Would-be participants are asked a few questions to see if they fit a study, and if so, they’re invited to meet with a doctor. The company conducts phase 1 through phase 4 trials — that is, early-stage to post-approval. Studies can last anywhere from six weeks to two years.
The company launched at the end of 2008, an inopportune time with the height of the recession pinching the number of clinical trials. This made for a tough few years, but arguably brought benefit long term.
“You hear the phrase children of the Great Depression where they learn how to live efficiently,” Mehra said. “I’d say the same applied for us, and it’s really helped grow the business in that we do everything as efficiently as we can.”
From the beginning Mehra saw operating clinical trials in a variety of indications as an imperative. His prior employer, California Clinical Trials, closed its San Diego division because it dumped too much money into too few trial areas, he said.
Artemis continues to beef up its offerings. In recent years, Artemis went from running strictly central nervous system trials like for schizophrenia and addiction to internal medicine indications such as dermatology and women’s health.
That’s a draw for companies with varying drug candidates. For patients, it means more possibilities to participate in a research study.