The incredible medtech journey of Dr Johnny Walker

9 Mar 2017

Dr Johnny Walker. Image: EY

From performing ultrasound scans in the Australian outback to starting global medtech empires, Dr Johnny Walker has his finger on the digital pulse.

“The Royal Flying Doctor took off, leaving us in a swirling cloud of red dust under a magnificent blue sky and all we had was this mouthful of warm beer from a can, but it tasted absolutely magnificent.”

Dr Johnny Walker, founder of Global Diagnostics, recalls the moment he began a practice in the Australian outback, where his decision to perform ultrasound scans from the back of a truck resulted in a life-saving intervention.

‘The problem is huge amounts of money are being invested in punts on connected health – $5bn last year – but I think for many, it will be a boulevard of broken dreams’

It was 1995 and Walker, a young graduate doctor, had just started a digital revolution in healthcare.

The qualified interventional radiologist and nuclear physician didn’t know it then, but he was on the cusp of big things.

The intervention sowed the seeds of an international business called Global Diagnostics. The company took advantage of the digital revolution to provide an around-the-sun network of specialists available to provide specialist diagnoses.

The company expanded to the UK, where it provided telediagnostics to the NHS. A chance attendance at a medical conference in Dublin 10 years ago led to Walker putting down permanent roots here.

Walker will be interviewed by NDRC’s David Scanlon at the Bank of Ireland-supported Startup Grind at Google’s Foundry in Dublin next week.

In 2008, Walker merged Global Diagnostics with Centric Health, and the combined business employs 450 people with revenues of around €34m.

Today, Walker is focused on his surgical work at The Hermitage Medical Clinic in Dublin as well as his two start-ups, Health Founders and Jinga Life.

A life less ordinary

“I trained initially in Sydney and went to Perth, where I had this visionary mentor who kicked all of his students out of the country for two or three years. I was lucky enough to win the Schering fellowship, which brought me to Hammersmith Hospital in London.”

The timing of Walker’s arrival in London was fortuitous. Hammersmith was in the process of moving from old darkroom techniques for developing x-rays to a completely digital approach, as part of a £28m investment.

Walker’s academic life also brought him to Cambridge and Stanford University.

It was while waiting for a H-1B visa to return to the US that he accepted a locum position, bringing him to Australia’s bush.

“My job was to do mobile ultrasound scans on pregnant women and I was especially on the lookout for large babies in the womb, which was caused by the genetic predisposition of aboriginal women to diabetes. The danger was that this condition could be a fatal danger to mum and baby. To this day, it is still the most common cause of death among aboriginal women in Australia of a child-bearing age.”

The process could be at best described as crude, with Walker providing the ultrasound scans using the power of a diesel generator off the back of a truck.

“We did 48 mums in 48-degree weather and we discovered one of the mums had a molar pregnancy, which causes a highly vascular tumour that causes death by haemorrhage. The nearest hospital was 200 miles away.

“The situation compelled me to try and provide a basic level of diagnostic care to these people in this beautiful part of the world.”

The revolution will be digitised

Dr Walker founded Imaging The South Group to provide ultrasound scans from a truck for Australia’s aboriginal communities.

Using off-the-shelf technologies, he built a secure, digital web-based platform to provide 24/7 medical diagnostics.

“On 4 January 1996, we transferred our digital ultrasound image to a small hospital 200 miles up the road in Western Australia and we did it via a 3K copper wire. One 75K image would take about four minutes and a case of 16 images would take up to an hour.

“I persuaded medical practitioners to fund it by reducing the need to have the Royal Flying Doctors arrive, which could mean a A$10,000 round trip.

“I basically began by going door-to-door to various GPs and, slowly but surely, it began to grow.”

The technology at the time was a hurdle, but the biggest setback was the reluctance of fellow medical professionals in Australia to accept digital transmission of images for diagnostic purposes. “One former colleague described what we were doing as ‘heresy’.”

Walker persevered with his vision of providing point-of-care remotely.

“I always viewed it as a medical practice, not a business. I saw myself as a surgeon first. But it was an amazing journey that allowed me to combine anatomy and physiology with the digital world and still be a doctor and work with patients.

“I love the dexterity of it and the fact that we provided a platform that could change the world.”

Imaging The South Group became Global Diagnostics as the practice grew in Australia and around the world. Walker moved to the UK to oversee the roll-out of the platform with the NHS.

“Around that time, I was invited by former Health Minister Mary Harney to speak at a conference in Dublin. And you could say I never left. We merged Global Diagnostics with Centric Health and together, we rolled out the VHI Swiftcare clinics, among other projects.”

Walker, a major shareholder in the combined entity, still marvels at how quickly Global Diagnostics had scaled to become a global entity, linking diagnostic imaging specialists around the world using voice recognition technologies. “This enabled diagnoses to be delivered in minutes, not days or weeks.”

Having come from the darkroom world where radiologists developed their own images using various chemicals, to being a forerunner of the digital movement, Walker said that imaging giants such as Kodak refused to see the writing on the wall.

“The young millennials of today would have seen nothing but digital. The irony is that Kodak had the technology but was too focused on its film business to accept the tide was turning. In the early days, I asked them to back me and they thought I was crazy. Kodak turned us down but Agfa backed us.

“I can still see the fear in Kodak’s eyes as I was ordering less and less film. They could have led this tsunami of disruption if they had only disrupted themselves.”

Nursing the Irish start-up scene to perfect health

In just eight years, Walker has made himself a firm fixture of the local start-up scene and has amassed a strong circle of friends and investors.

As well as practising as a doctor three days a week, he is focusing on two start-ups: Health Founders, which aims to foster young and upcoming medtech firms; and Jinga Life, a new B2C platform that he believes could revolutionise healthcare provision.

He completed the Enterprise Ireland Leadership 4 Growth Programme at Stanford University, was a seed investor in Smartbootcamp and, in 2012, he was invited to join the Singularity University Executive Program at NASA.

“Global Diagnostics was a 21-year journey and I realised that the business had reached a point where it had become all about scaling and no longer solely innovation, so I stepped aside and backed a management buyout three years ago.

“In the meantime, I have been doing a deep dive into the opportunity around digital mobile personalised connected health.

“I have looked at everything from VR to AI, wearables and gamification.

“The problem is huge amounts of money are being invested in punts on connected health – $5bn last year – but I think for many, it will be a boulevard of broken dreams.

“It is not easy; it is a difficult business to work in because it is a sick people business that also happens to be very heavily regulated. But what is wonderful is that it is allowing an opportunity for non-domain disrupters to come in and rattle the cage of how we deliver healthcare to our people.

“I set up Health Founders as a foundry for young, bright people to come up with any idea and we trash them out and see if we can build something.

“My other start-up, Jinga Life (named after the African warrior queen Nzinga or ‘Jinga’), is about empowering primary carers with electronic health record curation that allows family members and carers to keep people in the home and community without clogging up hospitals.

“There is a percolating anger and rage among primary carers at the bureaucracy and hassle of dealing with health systems. The idea is to empower people with personalised health records from womb to tomb and avoid unnecessary hospital visits with consultants speaking in Latin.”

The technology is built via a tech transfer partnership with a start-up based in Lisbon, combined with technologies such as Amazon Web Services and Stripe. Inbound sales are handled in Cork and Limerick.

“I have a deep passion for tech but I just don’t code, mate,” Walker said.

He said that he has personally invested €1m in Irish start-ups since he arrived in Ireland.

He put €800,000 of his own money into Jinga Life, which is being supported by a further €1m in private investment from high profile investors that include Ray Nolan, Niall Turley, Feargal Mooney, Tom Kennedy, Frank Boyle, Tom Brennan, Cathy Kearney, Anne Heraty and Pat Flynn.

“We are beautifully positioned to make a difference.”

As positive as he is about Ireland, Walker echoes Brian Caulfield’s sentiments on capital gains tax (CGT).

“It’s bad. CGT on exits are just terrible and I think we need to just de-risk the whole area.

“The riskiest sector of all is entrepreneurial.

“If we can incentivise angel investors to back worthwhile enterprises, then I believe we can really build something special here.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years