23 Nov CEO Profile: Kevin T. Conroy of Exact Sciences – Building a better colon cancer test
MADISON – While Kevin T. Conroy will not pursue a run for Wisconsin governor, the president and CEO of Exact Sciences Corp. (NASDAQ: EXAS) has turned his attention to growing Exact Sciences Corp. The company relocated to Madison from the Boston area just months after Conroy was appointed to lead the medical diagnostics firm.
Conroy, 44, is dedicated to leading Exact Science in developing a non-invasive, home-based test for colon cancer that catches the disease early and is patient-friendly. The screener is based on technology developed at the company over its 10 year history. In a recent interview with WTN News, Conroy discussed how he’s steering Exact Sciences to develop its yet unnamed colon cancer test and bring it to trial in 2011.
WTN NEWS: Tell us the key reasons you decided to move Exact Sciences from Massachusetts to Wisconsin.
Kevin Conroy: We’ve had great success in Wisconsin growing a molecular diagnostics company in the past with Third Wave [Technologies]. What we’ve found is we have great people in the state, people who are very experienced scientists who are capable of developing these advanced diagnostics tests. With these great people comes a tremendous network of other companies in the same industry to recruit from, partner with and collaborate with. We’ve also found that being so close to the University of Wisconsin has been very, very valuable Also, the cost of living here is lower, there’s less traffic here, and housing prices are lower here.
WTN News: Where is Exact Sciences at in its timeline for gaining government approval for its test?
Kevin Conroy: We expect to be in clinical trials by the second or third quarter of 2011. There have been a couple of different versions of this product on the market, and there’s currently a version of the test offered by LabCorp, one of the large clinical lab companies in the country. Our version will be developed and taken thru FDA trial development over the next year and a clinical trial would immediately follow that. The clinical trial should take under a year to complete and submit to the FDA. Because there other versions of the test, there’s a whole lot of knowledge about what this test will look like. We’re refining and redeveloping the test specifically because we know it is a highly reliable test.
WTN News: Why develop a test that has already been brought to market?
Kevin Conroy: There have been challenges developing various versions of the test. There have been technology improvements and new fundamental knowledge about the science of colon cancer that has helped dramatically improve the test results.
This is a test that not only has potential to save 50,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone, but has the ability to dramatically reduce health care costs and here’s why. The burden on the health care system from 150,000 people developing colon cancer every year is massive. Some estimates have it over $15 billion spent in treating colon cancer in the U.S. Most of that is borne by Medicare, our best guess is that 75 percent of that cost is borne by Medicare Colon disease is for people who are of the age where health care is paid for by Medicare. There are way too many people dying of colon cancer and it’s costing this country too much. With a simple, patient-friendly test we can detect it before it becomes cancer, remove it and the patient never develops cancer. And by focusing it on in the pre-cancer or early stage, over time it’s possible to nearly eradicate the disease.
For example, cervical cancer used to be the number one or two killer of women. About 30,000 women a year died from the disease in 1940s when our population was a lot less than it is now. The Pap test came along and last year fewer than 4,000 women died of cervical cancer, and at least half of those that died were those that were not screened. Preventative medicine does dramatically alter outcomes.
WTN News: How is your screener different?
Kevin Conroy: Current screeners don’t test very effectively. Colonoscopy is a wonderful test in terms of detecting pre-cancers and cancers. The problem with the colonoscopy is it’s not patient friendly and it’s very expensive. As a result, the compliance rate with the current gold standard for screening is low. Only 25 percent comply with screening standards in any given year. This leads to results where 63 percent of cancers are detected in the late stage. If you detect in stage one, 95 percent of the time you’ll survive. If detected in stage three, you get a 50 percent five-year survival rate. With stage four, there’s an 8 percent survival rate.
That’s why this is so powerful. If you have a simple screening test people will use. This is the only patient friendly test in early stage
WTN News: Have your efforts to develop this screener been affected by the global recession?
Kevin Conroy: We’re not affected by the short term economy and have sufficient funds to build the test we need to build, although we may raise more capital in the future. We have $26 million-plus available today to deliver on our stated plans.
WTN News: How are you building your company to achieve goals?
Kevin Conroy: We have a wonderful team here. I brought on Dr. Graham Lidgard a few months ago as chief science officer with 30 years experience in the diagnostics industry. He built the blood stage test used to keep the blood supply safe in this country. There are very few people with Graham’s level of expertise. Dr. Barry Berger is chief medical officer with the company. He has really strong relationships with American Cancer Society and the FDA and Medicare and is a highly respected guy who will be overseeing the clinical trial. And from the Mayo Clinic, we have three researchers join us and Dr. Dave Ahlquist joined us as a consultant. They are having a meaningful impact on the team here.
People were really drawn to the energy and focus that we have and the commitment we have to make the company successful. You get to wake up every morning and go to work and know if you work really hard and do a good job, you can have a major impact on a devastating cancer.
WTN News: Describe your leadership style.
Kevin Conroy: My leadership style is focused on really believing in what you’re doing and the cause. Focus on a few really big things and try to do three or fewer big things to get everyone rallied around accomplishing those goals. And then finally, hold goals to high standards and hold the team accountable to high standards.