Tobias Zutz found himself seeking a new challenge in 2015.
With a R&D experience in assay development and molecular diagnostics, he had been a member of the R&D team at Exact Sciences that developed Cologuard, a non-invasive screening test for colorectal cancer.
So Zutz met with Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Director of Licensing Jennifer Gottwald, whom he knew from their Master’s in Biotechnology program at UW–Madison, to look at WARF’s patent portfolio and discuss diagnostic technologies that could be licensed and potentially commercialized.
“One that wasn’t on my list was these methylated DNA biomarkers for prostate cancer, and she put me in touch with David Jarrard, the associate director of translational research at the Carbone Cancer Center, who had discovered those biomarkers,” says Zutz.
Zutz licensed the technology from WARF and founded Gregor Diagnostics.
“WARF is a key partner,” says Zutz, Gregor’s CEO who also holds a BS in Biochemistry and Genetics from UW–Madison. “They’re an investor, as well.”
Gregor Diagnostics is developing a prostate cancer screening test using seminal fluid as the source.
“When I first started looking for what to work on next, screening rates had been declining since 2008,” says Zutz. “Prostate cancer is the most diagnosed cancer for men and the number two killer, so why are rates going down?”
Zutz educated himself on the history and current state of prostate cancer screening and knew there had to be a better solution. With so few people getting screening, Zutz saw a huge market opportunity, as did the team at WARF Ventures.
“It’s another great opportunity and a much-needed solution in the prostate cancer market,” says Greg Keenan, Senior Director – Venture and Accelerator at WARF Ventures. “The market opportunity here is tremendous.”
WARF Ventures invests early-stage capital into emerging companies and provides market connectivity and expertise, with the goal of advancing technologies to market and generating return back to UW–Madison. WARF Ventures also attracts venture capital from other regions.
“We’ve been pretty successful in getting additional venture money into our companies through these networks,” says Keenan. “When talent resides in Madison, we bring investor dollars to those companies.”
Keenan says it’s helpful that Gregor Diagnostics is part of an ecosystem in Madison that includes large companies like Exact Sciences for potential exit opportunities.
“Toby is a great example of somebody who worked in a successful company that developed a cancer diagnostic and went on to build a company around a technology he found on campus,” Keenan says. “Madison has a long history in the diagnostic space at UW and with startups. We have a community of experts in the diagnostics space and commercial successes like Exact Sciences. There’s a symbiotic relationship between a leading company that benefits the university and UW research and technology that can benefit companies in their growth.”
The company utilizes core facilities at UW–Madison, which is both economical and provides access to instrumentation experts at the university.
“We can’t buy a $200,000 instrument, but we can rent time on it,” says Zutz.
The company has published initial findings and will begin a second study in March. Next steps will include a large FDA Pivotal Trial to screen asymptomatic patients, fundraising, and finding a clinical site partner. The company has raised a total of $2.9 million to date.
“The ultimate goal is to bring this new screening test to market,” says Zutz.
Gregor Diagnostics is incubating inside Forward BIOLABS, an independent nonprofit inside University Research Park that was established to provide lab facilities for early-stage biotech startups.
“That’s been a huge advantage,” says Zutz. “We raised $900,000 in 2018 to start development work, but outfitting a full lab takes $250,000, so having access to Forward BIOLABS’ equipment and facilities has really helped.”
Plus, Gregor Diagnostics’ small team benefits from being part of Forward BIOLABS’ community of startup companies.
“Having access to a fully equipped lab makes the capital required to start a biotech company more comparable to software startups,” says Aaron Olver, managing director of University Research Park. “Forward BIOLABS’ ability to help companies at an early, pivotal stage and extend that support well beyond the initial help is pivotal.”
Olver says startup companies frequently “graduate” from Forward BIOLABS to other spaces at University Research Park, like MG&E Innovation Center.
“Gregor Diagnostics demonstrates the power of our ecosystem,” says Olver. “Gregor is a startup that has UW technology in it and is a great example of the way UW knowledge gets translated into companies that solve important problems in the world and create jobs.”
“A strong UW–Madison is a key contributor to the birth of new companies and new jobs in biotech,” says Jessica Martin Eckerly, CEO and co-founder of Forward BIOLABS. “Gregor Diagnostics demonstrates how UW–Madison directly affects Wisconsin’s biotech sector – their founder is a UW–Madison graduate who is working to bring a UW–Madison technology to patients, and he’s hiring UW–Madison graduates to fulfill that mission. Growing the number of UW spinouts that then hire talented UW graduates, and helping those spinouts be successful, is a goal shared by many leaders in our ecosystem.”