Kalamazoo lab filled COVID testing void. As cases wane, it eyes next step.
KALAMAZOO—Visitors to the city’s downtown pedestrian mall may not notice that a door to an important link in Michigan’s $28 billion life sciences industry is tucked into a busy parking deck.
This office is where Genemarkers recognized during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic that its lab, which performed R&D testing for skin care products, could turn itself into an essential — likely life-saving — COVID-19 test processing center.
Now, as the latest wave of the virus recedes, the laboratory stands ready to leap into its post-pandemic business plan: one it enters bigger, stronger and prepared to build on its COVID experience, its leaders say.
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The virus was as difficult on work life at Genemarkers as at any other company, said Anna Langerveld, Ph.D., founder and CEO. Staff nervously watched COVID unfurl in spring 2020, and endured stay-at-home orders, revenue drops, staffing shortages and supply disruptions as employees worried about their own possible exposure.
But Genemarkers was among the Michigan businesses that recalibrated its work to help fill gaps in what the state needed to combat COVID — such as medical devices, personal protective equipment and clinical services. Its pivot to COVID testing marked a dramatic change for the company, but also provided an injection of state and federal funding, which allowed Genemarkers to boost its staff at a critical time.
“We learned about our own capabilities … and felt like we played a significant role in helping our community,” Langerveld told Bridge Michigan about the last two years.
Genemarkers took on regular, high-volume testing for many of the state’s skilled nursing facilities. Some had mandates to test biweekly, which exceeded the capacity of hospitals and established labs. The company also helped independent pharmacies and colleges start testing programs.
Genemarkers was among 12 Michigan small businesses that in mid-April 2020 shared $1 million in grants to retool and manufacture pandemic-related supplies. More than 300 companies applied for the funds.
Genemarkers joined companies like TentCraft in Traverse City, which pivoted to making portable medical tents, and Oxus America Inc., which made a key part for ventilators, in retooling its business to meet the pandemic moment.
The virus generated fast opportunities in the often slow-moving life sciences sector.
“It’s created a whole new market, and allowed companies like Genemarkers and others to expand,” said Stephen Rapundalo, president and CEO of MichBio, the state’s life sciences industry organization.
Rapundalo said that for many of the companies their temporary COVID focus generated income that now will fund post-pandemic growth. He estimates that at least a dozen Michigan companies that either shifted their focus to pandemic testing or were formed solely for that work will leverage the experience to build stronger companies for the future.
Among them are LynxDx of Ann Arbor, which says it remains committed to developing prostate cancer screening tools after switching to COVID tests, and Rapid Bio of Plymouth Township, which recently told Crain’s Detroit Business that it will invest into new uses for its Covid-testing equipment, possibly by testing for sexually transmitted diseases and urinary tract infections.
Genemarkers was founded in 2007 by Langerveld, a former researcher at Western Michigan University, which invested in the startup. Before the pandemic, its core business involved using artificial pieces of skin to test products for skincare companies that needed to outsource this work. It had also begun research to determine whether CBD was beneficial in those products.
But when the pandemic hit, most companies Genemakers worked for temporarily shut down.
“We had no revenue,” Langerveld said.
Fortunately, the company also was among 260,000 national labs certified by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to conduct human testing. It had been testing DNA to determine how a person would respond to medication, also known as pharmacogenomics.
Among other things, Genemarkers had experience in PCR molecular testing for medications, the same technology needed to test for COVID. That gave the company a leg up at a time when Michigan, like many states, was short on lab COVID-testing capacity.
The company learned in April 2020, days after applying for the state retooling grant, that it was awarded $104,000 to start COVID testing, which allowed it to buy more PCR instruments.
Staff pushed to get the lab open by that June, said lab director Stephanie Wheeler, fearing it could be too late if they delayed.
Deliveries filled a wall of coolers stretched along a hallway, and demands for still more test kits drove the company to start a second shift and expand into every inch of its office.
“Everybody in this building understood that what we were doing was going to impact somebody’s life on the outside world,” Langerveld said.
The pandemic pushed the pace of lab work. Langerveld said staff took pride in turning around most COVID test results within 24 hours, a task of special importance in group care settings “because we didn’t want there to be an outbreak in a facility.”
Two years later, as the omicron variant wanes in Michigan, the company is finally able to plan for its future.
It’s a bigger company: At its COVID testing peak, Genemarkers reached 50 employees, representing about 400 percent growth from early 2020. Today, 35 people work here, with openings for sales and accounting roles.
“A whole army” of high school and college students from Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University assemble test kits and prepare samples for processing in labs. The company turned to training students as traditional hiring plans collided with the workforce shortage, work that will continue as the company begins to shift away from COVID.
Genemarkers also now has a customer service team, and an area of its office dedicated to the logistics of receiving supplies, assembling them into test kits and shipping them. It has built sales relationships. Its IT contractor, Arivium of Grand Rapids, made changes to Genemarkers’ online patient portal that can be adapted to new types of testing results.
The infrastructure is now in place to “take this runway that we’ve built and ride it post-COVID,” Langerveld said.
The company’s R&D business, lost in the early weeks of the pandemic, started to return in 2021. And now Genemarkers expects that work to increase as it establishes more pharmacogenomic testing in place of COVID tests.
The volume will be different. Its peak COVID testing was 3,500 tests per day in December 2020, three times what it was a year later during omicron.
Revenue at the private company grew 10-fold over that first year, Langerveld said. It isn’t remaining at that peak, but it did allow for the purchase of a $500,000 next-generation sequencer to boost testing speed. She had wanted it back in 2019, but couldn’t afford it then.
COVID, Langerveld said, helped the company recognize its potential and generate the operating revenue to get there faster. It also built confidence in its ability to shift gears.
“But,” she added, “also there was a lot of enthusiasm about being able to participate in and play a role in providing a solution to something that was a serious problem.”
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