Exact Sciences CEO calls for creation of new corporate investment fund

Exact Sciences CEO Kevin Conroy is calling on business leaders in Milwaukee and statewide to help create a new corporate investment fund to drive startup growth.

Addressing the Milwaukee Rotary Club yesterday, Conroy cited data from a Kauffman Foundation analysis showing most new companies that survive for a year start shedding jobs at that point.

“What this says is, you need a huge number of startups to keep the American economic engine going, ultimately lifting people up out of poverty, providing economic growth,” he said. “There aren’t enough startups that are being created, and the problem in Wisconsin is particularly dire.”

He noted other states in the Midwest have seen much more venture capital investment in recent years. Wisconsin has seen some movement in the right direction, he said, pointing to the $100 million fund started last year by Northwestern Mutual, Advocate Aurora Health, Foxconn and Johnson Controls.

“That’s a really great start. We need to do more,” he said.

As part of his presentation, Conroy gave a progress update on the company’s colon cancer test called Cologuard.

He said Exact Sciences currently has about 4 percent market share with adults aged 50 to 85, but he’s confident that could grow tenfold given time. That’s because the Madison-based company has expanded rapidly in the past 10 years, laying the groundwork for future growth.

In that time, the company assembled a sales force and built its own lab as well as a large dedicated call center. He explains that “a big part of the problem” with colon cancer is just getting people to return the test.

He says calling, texting, emailing and other reminders have doubled the rate of return for the collection kit.

At University Research Park in Madison, work is progressing on Exact’s new headquarters and research and development facility. And with last year’s announcement of a new partnership with Pfizer, an “enormous number” of salespeople have been added to the Cologuard effort.

The company also recently announced a milestone of 2 million people screened with Cologuard.

“When you put this in perspective, that means about 10,000 people were diagnosed with curable-stage colon cancer,” Conroy said. “Which means surgery… no chemotherapy. It really changes the rest of your life.”

Ninety percent of those diagnosed with colon cancer in its early stages survive five years. But only 10 percent live that long when it’s caught in its final stage.

Conroy strongly emphasized the personal impact of seeing how people’s lives are changed for the better by early diagnoses.

“It’s just nonstop… People who call us and say, ‘Look, this changed my life,’” he said. “It’s really gratifying.”

It may have taken a decade to get to this point, but it would have taken a lot longer had Exact not persuaded leadership at the FDA and Medicare to make an exception to a long-held standard.

Conroy explained that getting FDA approval took a massive clinical trial with 10,000 participants at 90 different locations.

“We had to get through the FDA approval process, but it was critical that we get Medicare to cover the test,” he said. “The challenge is, that process is a separate process that begins about three years after FDA approval — typically with another 10,000-person study.”

After discussions with the company, FDA and Medicare created a new parallel review path. According to Conroy, that was the first time a medical device or diagnostic received FDA approval and Medicare coverage on the same day.

In the last 10 years, Conroy estimates he’s given 130 investor presentations and attended 4,500 meetings with investors. Through 14 different investment rounds, Exact has now raised $1.8 billion in total.

Some of those funds are supporting research into new diagnostic tests, including one for liver cancer based on a blood sample. The company is also working on a test for a number of other cancers — esophagus, pancreas, breast, lung and more — in partnership with Mayo Clinic.

“The last 10 years has been exciting, but the next 10 years we think is going to be dramatically more exciting, because of the number of new tests,” he said.


–By Alex Moe