Exact Sciences chief looks to boost state biotech sector

Kevin Conroy is awaiting the FDA’s final decision on Exact Sciences’ colon cancer test. In the meantime, he has some ideas on how to improve Wisconsin’s life sciences sector.

That includes increasing the size of the state’s venture capital fund, making it available to the life sciences industry and doing a better job of getting ideas born at the UW System into the marketplace.

Conroy called the $25 million venture capital fund included in the 2013-15 state budget a start, but said it needs to be bigger and more attractive to private investors. And he argues for the lifting of restrictions on life sciences — the fund is now limited to ag, IT, engineered products, advanced manufacturing, and medical devices and imaging.

“I think that the debate over stem cell research is a debate that shouldn’t be a debate in this state,” Conroy said in a new WisBusiness.com interview.

“Certainly politics plays a role in a lot of things. It shouldn’t play a role here.”

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The FDA’s advisory panel earlier this year unanimously recommended approval of Exact Sciences’ new home test Cologuard. The company showed in a study the test detected 92 percent of cancers, compared to 74 percent for the current noninvasive test, and 42 percent of pre-cancerous polyps.

Conroy said he hopes to have FDA approval within 60 to 90 days.

Conroy also said Exact Sciences is working on a sales and marketing plan to have in place once FDA approval comes. Some observers have noted Exact Sciences faces challenges, such as making physicians comfortable with a test that’s unlike what they’ve used before and winning over patients on the prospect of collecting a stool sample at home and shipping it out to be screened.

Conroy also noted a third challenge: educating payers, “the health insurance companies of the world, that Cologuard hopefully will be considered a new standard of care and a new alternative for people to use as a screening method.”

Looking to the future, Conroy said the company is also working on early detection and prevention of other cancers such as pancreatic, stomach and other organs in the gastrointestinal tract.

Conroy was head of the Madison biotech company Third Wave when it was sold, and some have wondered if there is a similar plan for Exact Sciences. Still, Conroy said the company’s main focus now is to be successful and uniquely able to develop these tests to detect cancers early.

“Our goal is to continue to build Exact Sciences and continue to make it successful over a long period of time,” Conroy said. “We are a public company, which means that we have a legal obligation to shareholders to maximize value, and we believe that we’re in a position to do that if we put our heads down and keep collaborating with institutions like the Mayo Clinic and developing new innovative diagnostic tests and screening tests.”

Conroy’s name has surfaced as a possible guv candidate both ahead of the 2010 election after Gov. Jim Doyle opted against seeking re-election and again for this year’s guv race. But some believe Conroy ultimately decided against a run this fall because he couldn’t leave Exact Sciences as it awaited word on FDA approval for Cologuard.

Conroy, now a regional co-chair of Business Leaders for Burke, deflected a question about his possible political future.

“I can’t tell you what I’m going to do someday, but I can tell you right now and for the foreseeable future, I am totally engaged in building what hopefully will become a great company that saves a lot of people’s lives,” he said.

— By JR Ross