MDN: Transnetyx Thriving in Testing World for ‘the Smart People’
Bob Bean was an unlikely co-founder of the world’s first fully automated mouse genotyping firm. He earned an undergraduate degree in music at the University of South Carolina and then went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Not exactly the formal training that foreshadows a career in molecular genetics.
But those who knew him best believed he had a salesman’s personality and one of his former choir members suggested pharmaceutical sales. It set Bean on a path that would lead to the founding of Cordova-based Transnetyx more than a decade ago.
Bean interviewed with several companies before being hired by the old Upjohn Co., which sent him off to sales school in Kalamazoo, Mich. A few years into the job, another sales guy named Tim Hodge approached Bean with the idea that would turn into Transnetyx.
“Science gets caught up in the science,” said Bean. “And I was never fascinated with the science. I was fascinated with the idea that a customer might need it and might pay us on a regular basis to perform it. So how we did it didn’t matter to me if it was cost-effective. But Tim was a scientist and so that mattered to him. So he took that part of the business and I took the sales and marketing side.”
Their company had a slow beginning, with former Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett connecting them to some investors in Aspen, Colo. Over time, those investors stopped supporting the company. Hodge also eventually left the business.
But the business, Bean points out, never would have been possible in the first place if an Italian molecular geneticist named Mario Capecchi hadn’t discovered a method for creating mice in which a specific gene is “turned off.” Capecchi’s work earned him a Nobel Prize and his discovery meant that researchers could better use the mice to study diseases at different stages, all of which goes toward helping science find ways to fight and eventually cure diseases in humans.
“It’s kind of like customizing a research model,” Bean said. “You take a little piece of the mouse’s tissue, about two millimeters of the tail or a little piece of the ear, and you have to get the DNA out of it and test the DNA to see if the mutation is in there or not.”
The big challenge for Transnetyx, Bean says, was convincing those doing the research that outsourcing the genotyping ultimately was cost-effective because it would save researchers from doing that work themselves.
“We’re not the smart people,” Bean said. “Our customers are the smart people.”
But Bean and Transnetyx have been smart about building the business. Clients range from universities near and far to pharmaceutical companies to CROs – contract research organizations. Currently, Transnetyx has 1,000 clients in the U.S., 300 in Europe and around 150 in Australia.
In November, the firm processed 250,000 samples and business is up 15 percent over last year. Bean says they are expanding their facility up to about 45,000 square feet and Transnetyx employs 90 people full-time. Results from testing are guaranteed within 72 hours.
Bean says the development of TAG Centers, which now number around 125 and are housed at universities where research is being done, was a game-changer.
“It’s a kiosk,” he said. “We started putting the kiosks in back in 2008 as a test. It became a revolutionary move, put us on the inside of the building. The university opens it up twice a week and ships everything that’s been dropped in there to us. Guys at FedEx said you kinda stole that from us. I said, `Shut up, you stole it from the post office.’”
While the company also runs samples on zebrafish and some other animals, according to its website, most of the testing is done on mice.
“If it’s got a genetically modified mouse that’s being researched, we can probably test it,” Bean said. “It’s everything from children’s cancers to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a wide swath.”
And an almost unthinkable way for Bob Bean to be earning his living given where he started.
“You got a guy that couldn’t get into med school (Hodge), and a guy that got thrown out of the ministry in Memphis, Tennessee, trying to raise $10 million for the world’s first automated mouse genotyping company,” Bean said, recalling the unlikely beginnings. “You might as well start that with a priest, a rabbi and a preacher all walk into a bar.”