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Warren Hickinbotham, founder of AxessHealth. Picture: Supplied
Warren Hickinbotham, founder of AxessHealth. Picture: Supplied

SA-born Warren Hickinbotham was living in the UK when he landed a great sales position in the US. The job was selling four days of golf, conference and one-on-one meeting packages, so the top executives of Fortune 500 companies could fly across that country to network.

The snag? Hickinbotham arrived in Chicago three weeks after September 11 2001.

Getting any US company to fly its top-floor executives together on the same aircraft three weeks after the atrocity was "a tough sales environment", he says.

"I came back to SA and got into advertising sales in a small B2B [business-to-business] print publishing business, which was like taking candy from a baby after trying to get the heads of Microsoft to fly across country in the US at that time. I worked my way up in that business and eventually became a shareholder."

Hickinbotham was soon approached by a family friend working with the SA Oncology Consortium (SAOC). The consortium wanted a newsletter but the idea for the project grew. "It got bigger and bigger and eventually I said to them: ‘You know, you’ve got the makings of an oncology industry magazine — not just for your members; anyone within the industry should be reading it.’

"That, of course, came with expenses and, being an association, they typically didn’t have funding." Hickinbotham chose to take on the risk. "SAOC would provide the content and we would put the whole thing together. The magazine was distributed digitally in a page-flip software that, in 2011, was very cool and everyone thought was very fancy. I look back now and I’m somewhat embarrassed about it, because it was just very gimmicky and clunky, but at the time, it was all the rage and it worked."

Hickinbotham then looked at the market and, not without challenges, brought the medical professionals online.

"In those days I used to just call them ‘-ologies’, not disciplines or therapeutic areas, and thought, why don’t we go to all these ‘-ologies’? There’s cardiology, there’s nephrology, there’s neurology."

He looked for an association to try to duplicate the initial model and found the SA Private Practitioners Forum. Over the next four years they launched 30 titles, digitally, the same model alongside the association.

"In 2015, we saw quite a rapid drop-off in readership. It coincided globally with a move to mobile and immediate consumption of news – bite-sized news."

Hickinbotham realised that even though his organisation was digital, it was still operating with a print mentality and needed to move its platform to an app and web-based environment. "I couldn’t get my partner across the line though," says Hickinbotham. "And so I made the hard call in 2016 to leave the business."

On January 20 2017, Hickinbotham started Blankpage Publishing and in August that year launched MedBrief Africa, a medical news site. The downloads in its first two months were 2,500, "a lot more successful than we thought it would be".

"It’s a gated community," says Hickinbotham. "You choose what newsfeed you want to access: you can go to cardiology or you can go to dermatology, neurology, just like we had in the magazines, but then we duplicate a lot of the generic content. An article on a practice management software goes everywhere because it applies to everyone.

"It’s also important that we’ve had to show advertisers that you don’t need 10,000 impressions. You know, there are only 100 dermatologists, so if you get each of them looking at your ad twice a month, that is a good number."

Blankpage has now also begun MedBrief in Namibia and Kenya. "We wanted to test the foreign market," says Hickinbotham. "Launching MedBrief East Africa into Kenya, specifically, and with just over 1,000 users there so far, we’ve proved the concept. We can go into a country, we can partner with local associations, distributors, pharma, and we can add value to the users and the advertisers in terms of the exposure."

In November 2021, Hickinbotham secured seed investment to set up AxessHealth Africa, a free health-care channel serving Africa’s health-care practitioners with real-time medical news, event information, education and tools.

"There are 1.3-billion people in Africa and there are just not enough doctors or health-care practitioners to serve that market. So the only way to help solve the African medical and health-care dilemma is to upskill, train, educate and better equip the doctors, nurses and field workers we do have.

"Altruistically, that’s what we’re trying to achieve here. If we do what we’re going to do and we do it right, a single doctor or field worker will get better outcomes from the interactions they have with patients, just because they’ve been equipped well and they can potentially reach more people through our technology."

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