By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – For those people who live in the Madison area or often pass through, the evolution of Exact Sciences in a physical sense has been nothing short of dramatic.
From what was a small office in University Research Park in 2009, the cancer screening and diagnostic test company has grown to include gleaming buildings in that West Side business park as well as facilities facing the city’s South Beltline highway in two locations.
Much less visible from a car window, but closely watched in the cancer detection world, Exact Sciences has grown beyond Madison to include research and development labs abroad and elsewhere in the United States – including central Wisconsin.
It is part of a Wisconsin story that almost never began 13 years ago but which may soon tell of more breakthroughs that build on the success of Exact Sciences’ signature cancer detection test, Cologuard.
On the same day an Exact Sciences quarterly earnings call drew attention from market analysts, about 90 people gathered for an April 26 Tech Council Innovation Network luncheon in Madison to hear what’s next for the company.
“We aim to eradicate cancer and the suffering it causes through tests that help prevent cancer, detect it earlier and guide treatment,” said Scott Larrivee, the company’s associate director of corporate affairs.
That may strike you as a bold goal until you think about the importance of early detection in fighting cancer. Larrivee described colorectal cancer as “the most preventable yet least prevented” form, which is why the non-invasive Cologuard test was developed and is widely used today.
Numbers back the claim: Nine out of 10 people with colorectal cancer diagnosed in stages one or two live five or more years. Conversely, only one in 10 people diagnosed in stage four can expect a similar life span.
In addition to Cologuard, Exact Sciences also competes in the precision oncology market with Oncotype DX, a genetic-based treatment selection test for breast, prostate, and colon cancers. With some of its acquisitions, the company is building a multi-cancer early screening test to detect about 14 cancers, a test that would be one of earliest entrants in multi-cancer liquid biopsy cancer screening.
Eight acquisitions have included companies such as Base Genomics, Thrive Earlier Detection, Biomatrica, Tardis and, earlier this year, Prevention Genetics in Marshfield. It is a genetics testing laboratory that grew initially out of research from the Marshfield Clinic Health System.
Studies into the potential of the liquid biopsy (primarily, blood samples) detection involve John Hopkins University, Geisinger and Exact’s Thrive acquisition. Scientists say virtually all cancer releases signatures of itself into the blood. These signatures include circulating tumor DNA and elevated protein markers associated with cancer.
Exact Sciences included a handful of employees when it moved from Boston to Madison, limping along the way from lack of funding. Today, Chief Executive Officer Kevin Conroy heads a publicly traded company with about 7,000 employees, half of whom are in Wisconsin. That number includes 1,000 engineers and 500 scientists. Growth is expected to continue, with $350 million in capital investments and 1,300 new jobs in Wisconsin by 2025.
As Larrivee told the Tech Council group, many of those new jobs will not require scientists or engineers, but people with other skill sets that are all part of keeping the larger operation humming. One aspect of Exact’s training and recruitment pipeline involves working with the Urban League of Greater Madison.
A day after the company’s latest earnings call, market news outlet Benzinga posted a revealing glance at a metric that should interest Exact Sciences’ stockholders. Someone who invested $100 in the company 10 years ago owned stock worth $571.40 as of April 27. Markets climb and fall, of course, but that rise in value is another reason the view from the car window continues to improve for many.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at email@example.com.