Agfa invests in future of voice with Talk Technology purchase

April 25, 2001

What began three years ago as a simple OEM arrangement has evolved into a modern marriage. As part of its strategy to provide turnkey image and information management products to its healthcare customers, Belgian film and imaging giant Agfa-Gevaert has

What began three years ago as a simple OEM arrangement has evolved into a modern marriage. As part of its strategy to provide turnkey image and information management products to its healthcare customers, Belgian film and imaging giant Agfa-Gevaert has acquired privately held Talk Technology for an undisclosed sum.

Talk Technology, which has emerged as one of the leading providers of speech recognition engines for radiology and other clinical applications, will retain its U.S. address and continue to operate as an independent entity under the direction of founder and president Michael Mardini. The company will also maintain its OEM relationships with many of Agfa’s largest medical imaging competitors, including Siemens, GE, Philips, Marconi, and IDX. Talk Technology’s partnering strategy had much to do with Agfa’s decision to buy the company, according to Mardini.

“Our plan has been to be the de facto standard for voice in radiology and healthcare by partnering with all the key vendors and sharing the physician’s desktop,” he said. “This acquisition can’t stop that from happening. Agfa saw our business plan, bought it, and they expect us to execute it.”

Founded in 1993, Talk Technology gained its initial foothold in speech recognition as a distributor for Dragon Systems. In 1996, when IBM introduced MedSpeak, the first commercially available continuous speech recognition product for radiology, Talk Technology began marketing the product.

But like many early voice and speech recognition products, MedSpeak had drawbacks. Recognizing an opportunity to improve on the core technology, Talk Technology licensed IBM’s speech recognition engine for radiology and built its own workflow application around that engine. The result was Talk Station, a family of products that provide speech recognition, digital dictation/transcription, workflow support, custom reporting, report tracking/retrieval, and advanced report distribution.

“The value for us is in the workflow,” Mardini said. “We see this as a clinical reporting solution for radiologists to help make them more efficient. We don’t necessarily save them time, but we give them the ability to do more things. Some of the features we are adding are really exciting.”

Mardini recognized early on that PACS and RIS vendors might want to embed Talk Technology’s voice-based reporting solution in their imaging systems and approached Agfa with a partnering proposal in 1998. Talk Technology has formed alliances with more than a dozen PACS and RIS firms since then. The company has also modified Talk Station to be engine-independent and has customized the original radiology package for use in mammography, pathology, and emergency medicine.

Today Talk Technology claims more than 2500 users of Talk Station at more than 200 U.S. healthcare facilities, primarily for radiology. That number is likely to increase considerably in the near term with the help of Agfa’s monetary and staffing resources.

“This deal was the best option for us,” Mardini said. “It is very hard to grow a business from where we are to where we need to be without any help, and we absolutely needed money to take it to the next level. Within four years, 90% of this market will be using this technology. If I’m right, the bandwidth this deal gives us will be crucial for our ability to meet demand.”