Business

Solving Cancer? Michigan’s Got It Covered

Lotsa ink – real and virtual – has been spent on discussing whether Detroit and/or Michigan is getting the “right” kind of attention. I think it’s happening, but only in small bits and pieces.

Here’s a story we should be shouting from the rooftops. There’s this Kalamazoo company that is developing a test that will tells doctors whether their patients have prostate cancer weeks if not months before traditional methods and do it with greater accuracy.

And, thanks in part to a local contest, a business consortium and a generous organization, that Kzoo company is closer than ever to getting the test out there – and expanding it to include early detection of other cancers.

Take that, raccoon-eaters. Michigan companies are stopping cancer. And we’re giving them the funding to do even more.

Here are the facts: The company is called Armune BioScience Inc. It recently won $500,000 in the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. That funding, in addition to the cache the award gained for Armune, is giving a little company some big shoulders.

I spoke this week with Eli Thomssen, president and CEO of Armune. He said when Accelerate Michigan announced his two-year-old company as the winner, he had emails flooding his in-box within 30 minutes. There were new investors. There were potential employees. Most importantly, there were inquiries from patients and doctors, asking when this potentially life-saving test would be available to the public. (The answer to that latter part – if all goes well, it could be available by May, and it would be available to Michigan residents first.)

Thomssen said he is following up on all his emails. Not only is he polite, but he also is aware that it is near to impossible to find funding in this day and age. So between the bucks it just got – and maybe more to come – Armune is feeling pretty optimistic.

“Raising capital right now is very, very difficult,” Thomssen said. “There are a lot of people looking for money and there’s not much money to be had. Half a million dollars goes a long way in a small company.”

Doors that were previously closed or nearly shut have opened again because of the Accelerate Michigan award, Thomssen said. Next week, he is attending the JPMorgan healthcare conference in San Francisco, and he has a dozen appointments set up with powerful folks…thanks, again, in part to the local investment in his up-and-coming company.

“There is truly a lot of interest in this field. Prostate cancer is the No. 1 diagnosed cancer in men,” Thomssen said. But with current PSA test, there can be many false positives, and better testing is needed.

Here comes the science part. When the body’s immune system identifies a cancer cell, it creates a signal called and autoantibody that is replicated and amplified to a level that is detectable in the blood. The Armune test basically detects the autoantibody through a blood sample. (It’s kinda like those early-detection pregnancy tests…you know, the ones that can let you know you’re “with child” only a few days into it.)

Early detection is key. If this test can be used for lung cancer – and it will be soon enough – then you could identify someone with the disease up to five years before a clinical diagnosis. The sooner you catch it, the higher your five-year survival rate will be. Think about the possibilities! Women who dreaded their annual mammogram could instead have a little blood drawn to detect breast cancer – think of the lives that could be saved! (Look, I rarely use exclamation points. That is how strongly I feel about this stuff.)

As far as media goes…the story got one mention in the two “big” papers. The Street, Yahoo! and D Business picked it up off of PR Newswire, so nothing original was reported. MLive had a nice little blurb. There were some nice blog posts. Um, yeah. Nice.

Background: Accelerate Michigan is a partnership between partnership between Business Leaders for Michigan and Michigan’s University Research Corridor. The Innovation Competition is a Herculean four-month effort to pull together the largest business plan competition in the world. Imagine how much the organizers can accomplish next year when they’ve got 12 months to plan.

The New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan granted Ann Arbor SPARK $750,000 to launch the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition on behalf of the Business Accelerator Network for Southeast Michigan, which is composed of four of the region’s key business accelerators – Ann Arbor SPARK, Automation Alley, Macomb-OU INCubator, and TechTown. (Full disclosure – many of these folks help sponsor this blog and this news group. But they really don’t decide what we report here…and that’s the honest truth.)

“Innovation is alive and well. It’s rooted here in Michigan,” said (my hero) Dave Egner, who heads the NEI and other do-gooder organizations.

By the way, Egner said the whole event had three purposes. No. 1 was to put Michigan as a dot on the map for venture capitalists. Check. Egner said one VC told him over dinner that “This (event) clearly is making Michigan a fly-in state instead of a fly-over state.” (I added the emphasis; I got the WordPress power.) No. 2 was to highlight Michigan’s entrepreneurial and innovative people. Check. No. 3 was to get the press out here. Well, half a Check.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if a Detroit-based company had won? Egner agreed, but those good souls can apply next year. As for Armune, Egner said: “Anything that happens on the West side of the state helps Detroit. Anything that happens in southeast Michigan helps the west side, it’s all good. It feeds off each other.”

So kudos to Accelerate Michigan. Kudos to Armune BioScience. Kudos to Michigan for keeping talent here, for having great scientists, for saving lives. Shout it from the blogosphere, the World Wide Web and those old-fashioned rooftops.

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