Genetic carrier screening startup thriving in Grand Rapids
Company’s goal is to offer testing services to every pregnant woman in the U.S.
A genetic carrier screening startup that launched in Grand Rapids in 2013 has aspirations to be part of every pregnancy that occurs in the United States.
Alan Mack said more than 4 million women become pregnant in the United States annually, and his company, NxGEN MDx, which provides genetic carrier screening for more than100 recessive disorders including cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy and fragile X, wants to offer its services to all of them.
NxGEN MDx operates in 38 states and has salespeople spread out across the country who sell the company’s services directly to obstetrics and gynecology practices.
OB/GYN doctors collect samples from patients, which are then sent to NxGEN MDx’s laboratory at American Seating Park in Grand Rapids for testing.
“We focus on next-generation sequencing,” Mack said. “We were the first laboratory in the country to utilize next-generation sequencing to do carrier screenings of these disorders.”
He said previous technologies were limited to looking at a handful of mutations that caused a disease, which, he said, although they might be mutations of higher prevalence, underserved the African-American, Asian and Hispanic populations.
“Our technology is agnostic to ethnicities,” he said. “We look at all the mutations associated with the disease, giving us the best sensitivity against any ethnic population, which makes us quite a bit better than any of our competitors.”
By testing for genetic diseases, Mack said would-be parents can begin planning for any special care that might be needed once the baby arrives.
“If you intervene early in the child’s life, their life can be longer and healthier,” he said.
He said children with cystic fibrosis, one of the conditions NxGEN MDx tests for frequently, are typically not diagnosed until their teenage years, which means a lot of damage already has occurred. He said data has indicated if a child receives certain types of therapies earlier, his or her life expectancy can go from living into their 30s to living into their 60s.
“So, a very different outcome,” he said.
Mack said helping pregnant women prepare for a diagnosis early is great, but his company would like to reach all women of childbearing age with its services. He said giving parents information about their genetics before a pregnancy can help them make important decisions down the road.
“If a couple knows they are both carriers of cystic fibrosis, for example, they can then go through IVF pre-implantation genetics, which will allow them to be implanted with an egg or sperm that does not carry the cystic fibrosis gene,” he said. “They reduce significantly the chance of their child having cystic fibrosis.”
He said would-be parents can also look into adoption if they are concerned with the risks of being a carrier for a genetic disorder.
“If they still choose to have a child, they understand the risks of having that child,” he said.
Mack said NxGEN MDx bills the insurance company for the tests. In the event a patient has financial difficulty, he said, there is a Patient Assistance Program.
“We are hopeful that this makes the testing available to everyone, regardless of their financial status. In the vast majority of cases, this testing is fully covered by the patient's insurance or Medicaid plan,” he said.
Mack said the market for genetic screening has been growing at a rate of about 10 percent per year and NxGEN MDx has benefited from that growth. The company became debt-free and profitable within its first six months, Mack said.
In 2015, the company’s test volume grew by 400 percent, and this year it expects to see 300 percent growth.
It also has continued to outgrow its space and add workers.
The company launched with a 20-foot lab bench in the GR Current incubator space on the fifth floor of the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences with intentions of maintaining the laboratory space for a while. Less than a year later, NxGEN MDx relocated across town to American Seating Park, where it operated a 5,000-square-foot laboratory.
Mack said the company has since taken over the adjacent office space and now has a footprint of 12,000 square feet at American Seating Park.
It has also grown to 50 employees.
Mack said in the coming year, the company plans to expand into new markets and to increase its presence in other markets around the country, which means it will hire 12 to 20 salespeople across the country and up to 15 new hires for its Grand Rapids laboratory to keep up with the increased volume those new salespeople will bring to the company.
Mack said Grand Rapids has been a great place to find talent. Early on, the company hired a professor from Ferris State University and, as a result, created a pipeline of talent, hiring several interns from FSU. He said most of those interns end up with a job with NxGEN MDx once they graduate.
“We are finding it’s easy to find talented people,” he said. “We find young people who are hard working.”
Going forward, Mack said the company will continue to be an innovator.
“Some of the things we are working on will potentially put us within every pregnancy that occurs in the United States,” he said. “We will very quickly go from being a small, quaint, Grand Rapids company to a very large multinational company. Stay tuned for that.”