KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The expansion of COVID-19 testing, while playing a large part in pandemic mitigation strategies across Michigan, also fueled genomics research company Genemarkers' exponential growth. It's an accomplishment being celebrated by the Biosciences Research and Commercialization Center (BRCC) of Western Michigan University—a nonprofit that invests in early stage life science startups across the state.
Genemarkers, which applies state-of-the-art genomics technologies to research and development, initially formed a solid foundation in the skin care industry before diversifying into clinical genetic testing. The company found itself uniquely positioned to make a pandemic pivot when novel coronavirus cases began surging in the spring of 2020.
"We really wanted to help in whatever way we could," says Mike Getz, Genemarkers chief executive officer. The company was among 12 small businesses and nonprofits awarded funding through the Pure Michigan Business Connect COVID-19 Emergency Access and Retooling Grants program. "We knew we were taking a risk, but we also knew there was an opportunity."
Growing the Company
The retooling not only helped the company stay afloat during an uncertain economic time, it helped Genemarkers thrive. With demand reaching upward of 20,000 tests per week, the operation grew from about a dozen employees a year ago to nearly 50 today.
"We were able to do this very quickly due to a great group of core team members." says Dr. Anna Langerveld, founder and chief scientific officer of Genemarkers. She launched the company in 2007 after working as a genomics consultant for Pfizer and an assistant research professor at Western, where she completed her postdoctoral work, for several years. "We have people who are really engaged and excited and willing to do whatever it takes. It helps the whole company grow and makes it a fun place to be."
The influx of business has also allowed the company to pay off nearly all of its investors, including a $500,000 check to the BRCC—a twofold return on the center's initial investment in 2012. Now, Genemarkers is looking to the future.
Health care has evolved as a result of COVID-19, Langerveld says. "The way you interact as a service with doctors and doctors' offices had been changing before COVID-19, but it's really different now. We're looking at what is on the horizon post-COVID. We have an expanded menu of tests now, but we're figuring out how to really capture some of that market share in a very different way," she says.
The company's next big project involves further expanding its pharmacogenomics division to facilitate precision medicine-based tests at some partner pharmacies. From a simple cheek swab, Genemarkers' researchers can determine how a person's genetics influence the way certain medications work and help doctors prescribe more effective treatments for patients.
"I think this new channel we're about to embark on could potentially be a really good fit. Companies have explored relationships with pharmacies over the years to offer this, but it's had a lot of challenges because pharmacists are not considered providers," Langerveld says. "COVID is changing that a little bit."
"The company really is positioned in a nice spot right now," adds Getz. "It's been a challenging year, but there's also been a reward."
Supporting Life Sciences
The Michigan Legislature initially set up the BRCC at Western in 2003 as a way to help grow promising life science sector ventures in the state.
"It's very important to have those opportunities so those potential science companies can be developed and grown here in the state of Michigan, because it creates jobs," says BRCC Executive Director Steve Haakenson. "I have always focused on the cluster effect. If you support these life science companies near each other, they feed off each other, they network, and all of a sudden…you have a core for the life science sector in the Kalamazoo area and other places throughout Michigan. And now we're known for it."
With an initial $10 million investment from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and another $5 million from the state and University when Haakenson came on board in 2012, the center has helped create hundreds of new jobs and attract hundreds of millions of dollars in investment capital to Michigan. Whatever returns the BRCC gets from its investments go right back into the fund to support new ventures.
"The life sciences industry provides good jobs, good salaries and, therefore, you're building a community. That's the main thing we want to see," Haakenson says. "We're also supporting the health of people not just in the state but all over the United States and the world. You're developing something that's going to help combat some disease or help a surgeon do a better job with a product that can help support and make life better for those people."
The support system offered by the BRCC stretches beyond financial assistance. Startups get help turning their research or concept into a viable business.
"I did leverage all those support systems and resources," Langerveld says. "When I first started, I knew very little about running a business, and I utilized all of the resources that were available to really develop a solid foundation for the company."
It's something Langerveld says many colleagues and friends who have started their own ventures in bigger cities missed out on.
"I could never have done this if I had been in a place like New York," says Langerveld, who grew up on the East Coast. "I think it would have been overwhelming, but having so much support across the board here—BRCC was great and also the Small Business Development Center."
Many of the companies supported by the BRCC also benefit from the talent available at Western, hiring students as interns and employees. It's a win for the University, providing valuable experience to budding scientists and innovators, and it also keeps talent cultivated in Michigan from leaving the state.
Information about the BRCC's current portfolio and the investment process is available on the center's website.
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