Karen Winterhalter 2 (1)

Leaving the bright lights of London to return to her native North East, Karen Winterhalter is now celebrating Onyx Health's tenth year in business. Here, she shares her journey from big pharma PR to supporting healthcare companies around the world, the importance of a tailored approach, and why she always wants to be there for 'the smaller guys'.

Tell us about your business, what does it do?

Onyx Health is a specialist healthcare marketing communications agency working with national and international clients in the life sciences, pharmaceutical and medical technology sectors.

One of the things we’re passionate about as an agency is helping SMEs and university spinouts break into the healthcare market and fulfil their commercial potential.

We’ve grown from a North East start-up to a thriving agency working internationally with clients from New Zealand to North America.


What did you do before you started this business?

I was lucky enough to work for some of the biggest names in the business when I was part of the fast-paced world of London PR.

I held senior leadership roles in some of London’s top PR agencies. I was Associate Director at Ketchum, European Director at Webber Shandwick and EMEA Chair for Burson Marsteller. I started in PR way back in the 90s, which was the era of big blockbuster drugs. I provided strategic counsel for global pharmaceutical clients helping them launch new products that transformed patients’ lives.


What inspired you to start up?

I grew tired of the bright lights of London and decided to return to my native North East 10 years ago to set up my own marketing communications agency, Onyx Health.

I have over 30 years of experience in the healthcare communications industry and wanted to put this to good use.  

I spent so much of my career working with big pharma that I wanted to give something back by helping the new upcoming companies make their mark in the industry. 


What has been your biggest achievement so far?

Being part of the launch of the big blockbuster drugs in the 90s was a real career highlight for me. Many of these products we take for granted now, but when Lipitor - the first-ever statin - launched, it was big news.

Healthcare editors on the nationals and women's magazines lapped it up, and if there was a photo opportunity, you were guaranteed coverage. I have had photographers stand on the roof of a fertility clinic to get a shot of the 1,000 children born through IVF when being infertile was hidden away. It was an exciting time to be involved in PR.


How do you differentiate your business from others?

What makes Onyx Health unique is that we are driven by our knowledge to create success. We have an in-depth understanding of the healthcare market in the UK and across the continent and a successful track record of helping our clients reach their target audiences and access new markets.

It’s our expertise that makes us stand out from other marketing communications agencies. Our ethos is all about growing in line with our clients, many of whom are innovative university spinouts and SMEs. We see their success as our success. 

We are now seeing a lot bigger clients wanting to work with us, but we will also maintain our ethos of supporting the smaller guys, no matter what.


Where do you see your business in five years’ time?

We’ve continued to grow throughout the COVID-19 crisis, winning new clients, setting up a new office and taking on 10 new staff members.

When it comes to our future growth plans, the sky is the limit. We have an international PR partnership with US-based agency Jeff Winton Associates, which is a key driving force behind our future business expansion. We work collaboratively to help their US clients to help them break into the European market.


Can you tell us a bit more about your partnership with Jeff Winton Associates?

Our partnership with Jeff Winton Associates marks the culmination of a 25-year business relationship between me and Jeff Winton, their founder CEO.

We first met in the world of global healthcare PR back in the 90s when Jeff was one of my clients. We’ve kept in touch over the years and decided to rekindle our business relationship last year during the COVID-19 crisis.

Jeff and I have held senior positions in PR and communications at a global level during careers that span three decades. 

Our international PR partnership will help their clients expand into the European market, and ours break into the USA. Having worked for a global Japanese company Jeff also has amazing insight, understanding and contacts in the Asia market.


What are the PR lessons you have learned from working with clients around the globe?

No two clients are the same. They all have different ways of working, operate in different markets and have their own unique quirks and idiosyncrasies. Generic off-the-shelf solutions need to be off the agenda. Every client is unique and must be treated as such.

Make sure you know your client inside out. Take the time to get a real in-depth understanding of the company and its commercial objectives. Always remember that strategy comes first; never launch into tactics until you’ve got the big picture nailed down.


You diversified into digital communications recently. What led to this and how is it going?

We have always undertaken digital communications but we launched our new digital offering last year in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The restrictions imposed by coronavirus on the healthcare profession and the seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns meant that our clients could no longer get face-to-face access to healthcare professionals. There was a need for the pharma and med-tech industry to continue to communicate with their target consumers.

We launched the Interactive Learning Environment (ILE), an online communication tool that offers all the features of traditional offline engagement in an integrated virtual platform. It has been a great help to our clients during this period of unprecedented disruption.


What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

My advice is simple: Be brave and be bold. If you’ve got an idea to do something amazing and start your own business, just go for it.

The North East has an incredibly collaborative, solutions driven approach to doing business. If you are starting out in business, you’ll have some fantastic people on your doorstep for support and guidance. 

Related campaign: 

The Go Further Investment Index is an opportunity to engage, showcase and celebrate progressive businesses who are pushing through and achieving their aspirations through access to investment, impactful collaborations, and the foresight to inform and respond to the changing world around them.

It is open to Northern Powerhouse and Scotland-based businesses of all sizes and from all sectors, but we are particularly interested in businesses operating within bio-science, health tech, clean energy, decarbonisation, circular economy, data and digitisation, space and satellite, tech, AI and advanced manufacturing.

For more info visit www.gofurtherindex.co.uk.

Contributed by Karen Winterhalter
Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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