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Cancer conquering CEO

For applying business sense to the fight against cancer and elevating Wisconsin’s status as a health-tech leader, Exact Sciences’ Kevin Conroy is IB’s inaugural Person of the Year.

Photograph by Shawn Harper

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

Kevin Conroy’s focus on the early detection of cancer has won him praise in many quarters, but so have the results. When your company, Exact Sciences Corp., has a flagship product, Cologuard, that has been used to screen 2.6 million people for colorectal cancer, and it has detected an estimated 12,000 early-stage cancers and roughly 84,000 pre-cancerous polyps to date, you’ve definitely made a cancer-fighting impact.

In 2019, Conroy and his fast-growing molecular diagnostics company continued their cancer-fighting march with a number of organizational milestones that have positioned it to conquer different types of cancer. Simply put, Conroy leads a local company that’s on an impressive roll with an increasingly robust financial performance and sparkling new facilities that include a new headquarters it will occupy early next year.

Having nearly reached the 3 million mark in the number of people who have been screened with Cologuard, its noninvasive, molecular screening test for the detection of colorectal cancer, and with a promising new cancer-fighting partnership with Genomic Health, a highly regarded California company, the sky appears to be the limit. All of this follows a fruitful co-marketing agreement with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer that has helped spread awareness of Cologuard in physicians’ offices nationwide.

That Conroy, the chairman and CEO of Exact Sciences, has produced results with a multidimensional leadership style is no surprise to industry observers. Last year, Conroy joined a list of life-science luminaries when BioForward Wisconsin, a state association advocating on behalf of member life-science firms, presented him with its Wisconsin Biohealth Business Achievement Award, which recognizes leadership and innovation.

“What makes it impressive is that he can do all those things,” says Lisa Johnson, CEO of BioForward Wisconsin. “He can acquire a company like Genomic Health. He can negotiate partnerships like the one with Pfizer. He obviously had to negotiate with the government just to get the test kit through the whole Food and Drug Administration process, but what makes him the leader he has become is his approach and driving down his philosophy into the organization. Whenever I talk to anyone at Exact Sciences, they are just so proud of what they do.”

The prep work

It seems obvious how Conroy’s previous professional roles as a CEO for Third Wave Technologies, a molecular diagnostics company that was acquired by Hologic Inc., and as an intellectual property attorney for GE Healthcare and an intellectual property litigator helped prepare him for this role with Exact Sciences, but he can cite less-than-obvious ways these experiences helped him build the company. His legal training taught him to think through complex problems, his brief time in the early-stage startup world in California introduced him to entrepreneurship and rigorous business thinking, and his days at GE were like taking a “mini MBA,” he says. “The combination of those things helped me figure out how to lead both innovation and a more mature business.”

With Cologuard, Exact Sciences’ non-invasive screening test, lab workers can determine the presence of colorectal cancer at its earliest stage, when survival rates are much higher.

Exact Sciences will have more opportunity to mature after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Cologuard for eligible average-risk patients age 45 and older. A rise of colon cancer in adults under age 50 has sparked the FDA to approve the use of Cologuard for eligible members of this population, and FDA approval follows a May 2019 American Cancer Society recommendation to screen younger patients for colorectal cancer. Between 2004 and 2015, more than 130,000 cases of colorectal cancer were diagnosed in individuals under age 50. Among those, more than half were diagnosed at an advanced stage (stages III or IV) when survival rates are low.

With this expansion, Cologuard can now be used by about 19 million average-risk people between the ages of 45 to 49. Colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. with more than 50,000 deaths each year, is recognized as the most preventable yet least prevented form of cancer. When diagnosed in the earliest stages, nine out of 10 people survive more than five years, but only one out of 10 people survive more than five years when the disease is discovered in later stages.

The expanded market creates more opportunities for Exact Sciences, but it also means the company’s workforce growth — it now employs 2,300 people and counting — is hardly done. “We hired 640 people last quarter, and we’ve hired 1,600 new people this year,” Conroy notes. “Over 80 percent of those were in Madison. It’s really been a tremendous opportunity because you have so many people coming to Madison every year to go to the University of Wisconsin or Madison College.

“With other recruitment programs, we’ve been able to fill the positions that are important for us to fill,” he adds. “That’s just part of having a compelling mission as a company. There are a lot of people who are energized about working at Exact Sciences because of the impact that we can have. A lot of our people come from word-of-mouth and referrals. That has been successful, so we haven’t felt an acute labor shortage and we hope we never do.”

Exact Sciences, which still has hundreds of job openings, has created a complete database of open jobs to help people apply online [at]. It also has partnered with the Urban League of Greater Madison to operate training academies and expose job-seekers and those considering a career change to opportunities within the company’s lab and customer-care teams.

The use of robotics for certain repetitive tasks such as box cutting and labeling has helped ease the labor crunch to some extent, while having the added benefit of increasing Exact Sciences’ attractiveness as an employer because staff can focus on more sophisticated lab and scientific work. “Adding automation has only helped us grow as a company, and it’s created a greater demand for people because our business has been more successful,” Conroy explains. “It also creates a significant opportunity for engineers, for mechanical, electrical, software engineers, and technical roles. In the same year [2019] that we invested the most in automation, we also had the highest number of new roles that we hired for.”

It doesn’t hurt that Exact Sciences was named one of the 2019 Best Workplaces for Women at a time when the life-science industry is trying to diversify. “The company can grow because so many people want to work there,” adds Johnson. “Kevin makes things happen to grow that company, and the thing we’re really proud of from BioForward’s perspective is that he did it in Wisconsin. He proved to all of us that you can build this in Wisconsin.”


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