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STEM Speaker: Erica Barnell '09

January 22, 2018

During assembly on Monday, January 22, Erica Barnell '09 spoke to students about her start-up company, Geneoscopy, and the lessons she has learned while building her still-young company. 

Barnell was introduced by the JBS STEM Speaker Series coordinator Martha Keeley and by junior Alex Duncan. Barnell graduated from Cornell University with a double major in applied economics & management and biological sciences. She is currently in the MD/PhD program at Wash U's School of Medicine. Her PhD thesis focuses on developing bioinformatic tools to advance precision oncology. During her first year of medical school she founded Geneoscopy, which uses a novel method to extract eukaryotic RNA biomarkers from stool. The company's mission is create noninvasive diagnostic tests that prevent, detect and treat gastrointestinal disease. To date, Geneoscopy has raised more than $1 million in funding, filed for two utility patents, and created a pipeline of five viable products that utilize the platform’s technology.

Barnell emphasized the usefulness of engaging in multiple fields both in college and graduate school ~ in her case, the marriage of science, technology and business to advance health care. Early on at Wash U, she met a patient in her early 50s who had advanced stage 4 colon cancer. This patient had not had a colonoscopy because of cost and required time off. Barnell wondered why we only offer patients one choice ~ invasive colonoscopy ~ when the research she was involved in at Wash U clearly indicated noninvasive detection was possible. She decided to apply the research to the market ... to seek permissions to pull the technology out of Wash U to develop a commercially viable product.

The first step was to assess the size of the market, and she discovered the market is huge: about 25 percent of the U.S. population is affected annually by digestive diseases, more than 250,000 die annually, and, perhaps most compelling, some $140 billion is spent on prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

The next step was to assess the competition, and she discovered that only two companies were using stool-based DNA biomarkers and none were using RNA biomarkers.

The third big question was whether Wash U's technology would really work commercially, because RNA samples are messy and it is difficult to isolate cells. Geneoscopy developed a process to effectively and reliably extract the RNA biomarkers.

The fourth step was to file patents to protect Geneoscopy's RNA extraction platform. Currently, the company has two patents pending, and it expects to apply the platform to human and animal populations for the purpose of diagnosis, prognosis, recurrence and companion diagnostics across multiple diseases (colorectal cancer, GI lymphoma, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome and celiac disease).

Geneoscopy currently has four diagnostic tests in its research pipeline ~ from a $320 million veterinary GI lymphoma test for cats to a $2 billion digestive disease companion diagnostic to help big companies evaluate the effectiveness of their drugs for humans.

After this synopsis of Geneoscopy, Barnell shared top lessons she has learned in developing/building her company:

  • Age is just a number (do not let anyone deter you because of your youth).
  • "If you want to take the island, burn the [your own] boats" (quoting Caesar, her point is to resist quitting to take an easier path when the going gets tough).
  • "No" is just the beginning of the conversation (when told "no," figure out why and regroup).
  • If you are going to fail, fail fast.
  • Never pay for something you can get for free (e.g., market analysis).
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help (recognize your own limitations and build from there).
  • Never say "no" to a conversation (a near "no" from her would have lost her the chance to spend time with Mark Zuckerberg).
  • It's about execution, not ideas (Facebook over MySpace).
  • Have a contingency plan, and don't be afraid to pivot (Amazon versus Blockbuster).
  • Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and who you trust, and delegate to them.

During a brief Q & A, Barnell said St. Louis is building a national reputation as an entrepreneur-friendly area. St. Louis has been an excellent location for Geneoscopy: the combination Cortex, Wash U, SLU, Barnes and Mizzou has been instrumental along with a reasonable cost of living.