photo by Michael Miller

Family Affair: Courtagen Applies Management DNA to Genomics Startup

 

(Woburn, MA – January 25, 2012) Woburn, MA-based Courtagen Life Sciences’ acquisition of Medicinal Genomics, announced January 18, is less notable for the technologies that are being merged than for the people who are coming together on the management team. Courtagen’s CEO is Brian McKernan, who co-founded the company in 2009 with his brother, Brendan, who is the startup’s president. Medicinal Genomics, based in Marblehead, MA, was founded in 2011 by another McKernan brother, Kevin, who is now Courtagen’s chief scientific officer.

And there are even more family ties: Dad (better known as Richard McKernan), is the chairman of Courtagen’s board of directors. “A couple of things have to fall into place to make a family-run business work,” Brian says. “You have to get along with each other, but that’s not enough. You also need complementary skill sets. That is the case with us.”

It’s hard to argue with him when you look at the McKernan family’s track record. The three brothers previously founded DNA sequencing company Agencourt Bioscience and its spinoff, Agencourt Personal Genomics. They sold the first of those companies to Beckman Coulter for $100 million in 2005, and the second to Applied Biosystems for $120 million in 2006. The brothers (pictured above from left to right, Kevin, Brian, and Brendan) picked up their enthusiasm for starting and selling science-related companies from their father, Brian says, who was instrumental in building a company called Packard Bioscience and selling it to health technology giant PerkinElmer.

The family, says Brian, has a shared goal for their latest startup: to make DNA sequencing technology as accessible for doctors and their patients as it is for bench scientists. “Our strategy is to drive genomic biomarkers into the clinic—effectively taking all the wonderful technology that’s been developed for DNA sequencing and making it useful for clinicians,” he says.

In March, the company plans to roll out a genomic profiling business, Brian says. “What we will be doing is taking patient samples and sequencing them, then providing reports back to physicians on certain disease areas,” he says. The company is not yet ready to disclose further details about that product, he adds.

Courtagen was originally founded on technology the company bought from a bankrupt company called Decision Biomarkers. The device, called Avantra Q400 Workstation, uses a chip that’s roughly the size of an iPhone and was designed for researchers to use to rapidly analyze protein biomarkers important in cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses. About $50 million had been poured into developing and launching the device before Decision Biomarkers went bankrupt, Brian says, but there were manufacturing issues and other problems that forced Courtagen to temporarily halt sales. “We had to fix all the problems and bring it back onto the market, which is what we’re working on now,” he says.

While Brian and Brendan were working out the kinks at Courtagen, Kevin was building Medicinal Genomics, a company that developed next-generation DNA sequencing technologies. Medicinal Genomics generated worldwide buzz (no pun intended) last summer when it announced that it had sequenced the genome of the cannabis plant. The company’s intentions were purely medical, of course: It wanted to help researchers parse out the plant’s therapeutic benefits so they could develop new drugs.

The terms of Courtagen’s acquisition of Medicinal Genomics were not announced, and Brian admits that he and his brothers are still working out the details of how they will meld the two companies’ technologies. But he’s confident that having both companies under one roof will give Courtagen the expertise it needs to cater to all the players in the growing movement of “systems biology”—the effort to study entire biological networks rather than just zeroing in on specific genes or disease-causing proteins. “There’s a greater push now to look at protein and genomic biomarkers in concert with each other, to better promote patient health,” Brian says. “So having both technologies—protein diagnostics and genomic sequencing—just made a lot of sense to us.”

Finding the right path to merging the technologies will require the brothers to work together in harmony—a talent they’ve honed over the last decade. Brian says it helps that they all have different strengths that are essential to running a science-based business. Brian is an MBA with a background in finance and management. Kevin is a trained biologist, who early in his career managed R&D for the human genome project at MIT’s Whitehead Institute. Brendan, on the other hand, is an operations whiz, Brian says. “He likes to put process to chaos,” Brian says. “He sees DNA as just another widget in the pipeline.”

When the brothers first started working together in 2000, Brian says, they developed a conflict-resolution strategy that they rely upon to this day. “We sit down and talk. We don’t use e-mail,” says Brian, adding that the brothers spend a lot of time hanging out after hours. “We do our best to leave business out of the Thanksgiving dinners,” he says.

The adjustment was hardest for Brian, the first born of the four McKernan siblings. (Their sister, Melissa, a cardiologist, is the second born, with Brendan and Kevin the next in line). Brian says trading in his big-brother hat for his CEO hat every time he stepped into the office was hard at first. “As CEO, I had to learn to treat my brothers as professionals, not as younger siblings. I couldn’t just say, ‘Look, go get this done.’ I had to listen to them and understand their vantage point. I probably went through the biggest learning curve of anyone.”

That ability to communicate and problem-solve will be vital as the McKernan brothers work with their father to build Courtagen. The company has raised about $16 million from unnamed institutional and individual investors. Brian says he’s out looking for acquisitions “on the protein-diagnostics side,” but that Courtagen is being choosy about what technologies it brings in to round out the business plan.

When asked about the future of Courtagen, Brian quotes his idol (and fellow family-business guy) Warren Buffet. “He has this saying that in order to finish first, you must first finish,” Brian says. “That phrase couldn’t be more applicable to young companies in this business. We have to be adaptive and flexible. There will be turns and navigations along the way for us.”