Kevin Conroy left a law firm job in his early 30s, right after he had just made partner, to work for a venture capital-backed startup in California called Outcomes.
The outcome was not what Conroy had hoped. About a year later, the business ran out of money and went bust. Even so, Conroy, now the 51-year-old president and CEO of Exact Sciences (NASDAQ: EXAS) never considered leaving the world of company-building to reenter the legal field.
“I think opening up a hot dog stand would be more exciting than going back and practicing law,” he told a crowd of entrepreneurs, investors, and others on Wednesday.
Conroy took the top job at Madison, WI-based Exact in 2009. The company’s flagship product is Cologuard, a stool-based DNA screening test for colorectal cancer. The test has been used to screen more than 1 million people for the disease since it went on the market four years ago.
Still, Exact has yet to turn a profit in the 23 years it’s been in business. Conroy said its long-term goal is to increase Cologuard’s share of the U.S. colorectal cancer screening market to 40 percent, from its current 2.6 percent market share.
Conroy spoke as part of Madwaukee Talks, a series of events organized by the Milwaukee Institute and StartingBlock Madison that features leaders of Wisconsin-based technology businesses. The talk, which also featured Daniel Lawton, co-founder and president of Milwaukee-based Promentis Pharmaceuticals, is part of an effort to strengthen the ties between Wisconsin’s two most populous cities.
After the event, Conroy talked with Xconomy about Exact’s past and future expansion plans, educating patients and doctors about cancer screening options, supporting entrepreneurship in the life sciences, and other topics. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Xconomy: Looking back on the past nine years since you joined Exact as CEO and the company moved to Wisconsin from greater Boston, do you feel like most or all of the big things that had to go right went right?
Kevin Conroy: We didn’t know how many things had to go right. We thought willpower would help us identify the problems and solve them. It’s been a combination of hard work by a lot of people and good fortune along the way.
It’s an amazing thing now to see that we just had our 1 millionth person [tested]. Out of those 1 million, statistically about 7,000 likely have caught colon cancer. Statistically speaking, maybe 75 percent of them were stage 1 or stage 2 [cancer], which is eminently curable. We know that we’re having an impact, and giving peace of mind to the people who get a normal Cologuard result.
X: Supposing hypothetically that Exact isn’t involved in any major mergers or acquisitions in the next few years, do you expect the company’s focus to largely be on getting more doctors to learn about Cologuard and order the test, and also getting insurers to cover it?
KC: Yeah. It’s deepening the understanding of Cologuard in the minds of physicians and consumers alike.
We have a goal to get 8 to 10 million people screened every year with Cologuard. By doing so, we think that we’ll bring colon cancer screening in line with breast- and cervical-cancer screening.
We’re confident that we will get there. How much time that takes, we don’t know.
X: So you haven’t put a specific date on the goal of having 8 million-plus patients screened with Cologuard annually?
KC: We have not.
X: Just because a doctor is able to order Cologuard for her patients doesn’t automatically mean that she knows about the tests, and its pros and cons when compared to a colonoscopy. How do you get the word out to more physicians?
KC: Digital education. Direct marketing to physicians. Bringing them to the physicians website that we have. You can really target primary care physicians with Web advertising. Our professional sales force—their job is to go and educate our current customers. It’s full-blown medical education, like you would see in any new healthcare product launch.
X: The computer screen a doctor looks at when considering different options for colorectal cancer screening seems like valuable real estate, from Exact’s perspective. Is the goal to make it possible to order Cologuard from the same place where a doctor is accustomed to ordering colonoscopies for patients?
KC: We’re about 10 to 15 percent penetrated into the [largest hospital systems] that have access within their electronic medical records software for ordering Cologuard. One of the biggest things that we can do over time is to get that to 100 percent.
X: So you’d say it’s important to Exact not only that physicians know about Cologuard, but also to make it easy for them to prescribe the test, regardless of what medication-ordering tools they use?
KC: Yes. That’s right.
X: Looking outside the world of Cologuard, what’s the latest on some of the other screening tests in Exact’s pipeline that the company is developing alongside the Mayo Clinic?
KC: Broadly speaking, liquid biopsy … looking primarily at blood but also other sample types, whether it’s urine or stool or even tissue to help better diagnose cancer in the early stages.
There will be data that will be published as part of Digestive Disease Week in the first week of June [on] a blood-based liver cancer test.
We are continuing to work on a lung cancer test that could be used potentially as a screening test.
And then the big idea is a multi-cancer test that would not only detect five, 10, 15 cancers—also, it would point to which part of the body to peer further [into], if possible. Do you do an upper GI scope or lower GI scope or PET scan or MRI? Is it breast cancer? Where do you go look if that multi-cancer test is positive? That’s the really big idea.
X: Exact was going to move to a new headquarters in downtown Madison, but scrapped that plan after a decision from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force caused some volatility in the company’s stock price. Even though Exact is now adding lab and office space near the company’s current headquarters, is there any part of you that wishes things had worked out with the planned move?
KC: You know, it’s interesting. It would’ve been great to be downtown. But once we made the decision that we weren’t going to be downtown, we never looked back.
The truth is that downtown building may have ended up being too small for us and we would’ve needed [more space]. Looking back, it’s probably fortuitous in that we’re going to need more space than that would have supported.
X: Earlier today, we heard the story of Promentis Pharmaceuticals, which is seeking to bring drugs to market based on technology licensed from Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Given Wisconsin’s struggles with startups, could programs focused on supporting technology transfer and efforts to commercialize existing research move the needle when it comes to high-growth startups here?
KC: Yeah, it could move the needle. I think we need more money focused on getting these concepts that are sitting in university research labs. [Funding, even as little as] $200,000 can help get proof of concept so you can go out and get an angel round done or a Series A round done.
We need different classes of venture capital. The state really should not miss this opportunity because of what could come out the back end.
If this state is going to put $4 billion into between 3,000 and 13,000 jobs [at a planned Foxconn display-manufacturing plant in southeastern Wisconsin], it certainly can help seed a multi-hundred million dollar fund or funds that will help grow over a 10- or 20-year period [and create] great-paying jobs.
It’s illogical for Wisconsin to lag Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, even Illinois, in access to entrepreneurial capital. But we do.
X: Have you ever considered or been encouraged to run for political office?
KC: I have considered it, and I decided not to.
X: Is that something you’re not ruling out in the future?
KC: I would never say never. But I’m focused now and for the foreseeable future on the job that I love.