How Kevin Conroy Transformed Exact Sciences With Three Guiding Principles

May 28, 2019

After successfully growing and steering the $582 million sale of Madison-based Third Wave Technologies, Kevin Conroy went looking for another company to run. He found Exact Sciences — a struggling, publicly traded Massachusetts company with a DNA-based test for colon cancer that hadn’t been approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

When Kevin took over in April 2009, Exact Sciences had a handful of employees and a stock that was trading around $1 a share. Ten years later, the company has more than 2,000 employees, about 300 job openings, and a stock price that has reached into the high $90s.

That colon cancer test, now called Cologuard, got FDA approval and has been used to screen more than 2 million people. Now, Exact Sciences is making progress on a non-invasive test for liver cancer and has others in the pipeline.

Here are Kevin's three guiding principles that transformed Exact Sciences:

1. Defy convention

Kevin Conroy helped transform Exact Sciences with three guiding principles.
Credit Exact Sciences

"Exact Sciences wouldn’t be the company it is today if not for the team’s early ability to think differently and forge a path where others might see the end of the road. While wrestling with the decision to take this role, Maneesh Arora and I traveled to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to meet with gastroenterologist and researcher Dr. David Ahlquist. It’s there we came to understand, if we were going to do this, we needed to be a company that defies convention. Shifting the colorectal cancer paradigm would require outside of the box thinking. The opportunity and challenge were so complex that Graham Lidgard, our newly hired chief science officer, moved from California to join us in our quest. There wasn’t a path to follow, and we needed to be willing to push, make mistakes, and try again.

"We made our fair share of mistakes going against the grain, but we learned. It’s the learning that helped us grow and mature. Whether you’re at the peak of your career or just getting started, seek out opportunities to defy convention. You never know where they may lead."

"Whether you're at the peak of your career or just getting started, seek out opportunities to defy convention."

2. Take risks if you want big change

"By 2011, we needed to validate the science for our potential colorectal cancer screening test on a large scale. We embarked on a 10,000-patient study to satisfy the evidence requirement for the FDA and CMS and, ultimately, give patients and providers the confidence in a potential new screening method.

"There was considerable risk in moving ahead with a study of this size. It would be the largest private trial for colorectal cancer and the future of the company rested on our ability to show similar results from our smaller, case-control research. As we started planning, consultants suggested it would take three years to meet our recruitment goals. We didn’t have three years. We set our goal at, an unheard of, 18 months.

"We wanted to make a big change — playing a role in the eradication of colorectal cancer — and it required big risks. It paid off: we met our patient recruitment goals and the pivotal study ended up validating our test and leading to the first-ever parallel FDA/CMS review process and joint approval/coverage."

3. Focus on three priorities

"At Exact Sciences we have a mantra: if you have more than three priorities, you really have none. It’s been a guiding principle throughout my career and, especially, the last 10 years at Exact Sciences.

"In the early days, a Post-it on my computer screen served as a reminder of those priorities. We have priority posters throughout our office spaces now. This focus, coupled with the team’s passion for our early detection mission, fuels our success every year."

Editor's note: The text about Kevin's three guiding principles is an abridged version of Kevin's column about leadership that first appeared on LinkedIn. You can read the entire column here.