SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 5, 2012

Danvers' Eliza Corp. sends health-related messages with heart

Eliza Corp. wants you to be understood

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — DANVERS — Chances are, unless you are a health care provider, insurer or large employer, you have never heard of Eliza Corp.

However, you may have heard the voice of Alexandra Drane, the “health engagement management” company’s co-founder, chairman and chief visionary officer.

She used to be the voice behind the messages reminding patients to test their blood sugar, take their high blood pressure medication, get a mammogram or schedule a follow-up test. Hundreds of millions of people have heard her voice, Drane said.

Drane recalls the strange feeling she had when the company, founded in 1999, went live and friends from all over the country began calling to ask her if she had called them.

“I remember ... the first time that our friends began to call us and say, someone who lived in New York, someone who lived in California, ‘I just got a call and I think it was from you. And we were like: ‘No. That’s Eliza. That’s our system.’”

The company uses cutting-edge speech recognition technology to help patients interact with their doctors and insurers. Its soothing calls feature a female voice reminding patients to make follow-up visits or have tests taken. The company tries to be creative and compelling in its messaging to get results.

“We found that when we personified the heart, and made it your heart calling you to say: ‘Hey, you know, you are not taking care of me. Take me to the doctor, and get some medication,’ our engagement rates went through the roof,” Drane said.

Eliza has a wealth of 700 million “interactions” that it mines to see if the messages it sends to patients are getting through.

The company “conversed” with 50 million individual health care consumers last year, said Lucas Merrow, co-founder and CEO.

Eliza’s technology not only handles calls that you place to your doctor’s office or insurer, it was one of the first speech recognition companies to focus on making outbound calls to patients.

The company’s solutions, which also include email, text messaging and social media, are seen as vital today in an era of health care cost consciousness on the eve of major reforms, Drane and Merrow said.

A growing company

As Eliza outgrew its space in the Cummings Center in Beverly, it decided to move to a cavernous open office at 75 Sylvan St. in Danvers, the redeveloped former Sylvania light plant. Now, it can accommodate its growing workforce of just under 200 people in one space. The company started above a beauty salon on Cabot Street before moving to Cummings for the past decade, Merrow said.

The company’s name comes from Eliza Doolittle, whose thick accent elocution teacher Henry Higgins tried to erase in “My Fair Lady.” That’s why there’s a print of Audrey Hepburn, who played Doolittle in the 1964 musical, hanging on the wall in the front lobby.

“It is not for us to tell you to fix your (lazy) ‘L,’” Drane said, “It is up to us to understand how you talk and support that.”

The system has to deal with scenarios such as someone coughing or wheezing from emphysema or an elderly wife who picks up the phone for her husband with the TV on in the background. It even has to understand someone who has had his voice box removed and speaks with an artificial larynx.

The company deals with 44 dialects in U.S. English, Merrow said.

At its core, Eliza is an information technology company, a pioneer in cutting-edge speech recognition software that announced Aug. 6 that it was awarded its 15th patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for what it calls a “complex acoustic resonance speech analysis system” used to simulate human interactions.

Focused on health care

The company has taken its software and tailored it solely to the health care field.

“One of the interesting things about Eliza is we specialize. We took a core technology and specialized in a field where we thought there was a big need,” Merrow said, “and thankfully there was a big need and, due to luck and a lot of hard work and scars and perseverance, proved it out along the way.”

The company counts about 120 customers, including leading health insurers and large provider networks. Fallon Clinic and Harvard Pilgrim were early adopters, Merrow and Drane said.

Eliza had some initial angel investors and was financed at first with help from MassDevelopment, Merrow said. It was self-financed for much of its existence, he said.

Merrow declined to give revenues for the privately held company, but said the company is profitable and has enjoyed a double-digit growth rate in the past several years.

In June 2011, the company announced an investment from Parthenon Capital Partners, a growth-oriented private equity firm with offices in Boston and San Francisco. Merrow and Drane declined to give the size of the investment.

It’s the first time the company took on institutional capital since becoming profitable in 2002.

“It’s a functioning market,” Merrow said. “We are a big company, there’s other segments we want to go into, just having a good financial partner, it’s just the right time.”

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.