Empire Genomics plans to expand

2013-02-22 16:28:08

A company that develops tests to pinpoint whether a specific medical drug or treatment will help an individual patient announced Thursday plans to hire 50 new employees over the next five years at its offices on the edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Empire Genomics will hire the workers to conduct, manufacture and market a new test meant to determine the best form of treatment for multiple myeloma, a blood-based cancer.

The six-year-old life sciences company, which grew out of research conducted at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, has opened a clinical laboratory at its Michigan Avenue offices and recently hired a laboratory director who moved to this area from Atlanta.

“We believe that understanding a person’s genome is already transforming patient treatment, and we look forward to playing a role in this age of genomic-based medicine and growing our company in Western New York,” Norma J. Nowak, a founder and chief scientific officer of Empire Genomics, said at a news conference Thursday in the Western New York Medical Arts Building.

Elected officials, scientists and members of the business community Thursday touted the company’s announcement as an example of how the region’s investment in the life sciences is beginning to pay off.

They say Empire Genomics is just one of the dozens of companies formed to leverage the cutting-edge innovations produced at institutions such as Roswell Park, the University at Buffalo and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute.

“It’s further proof that our region is a place where life sciences companies can compete, commercialize and succeed,” said Thomas A. Kucharski, president and CEO of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise.

Formed in 2006, Empire Genomics grew out of research conducted by Nowak at Roswell Park. The company uses genetic tools to develop more precise, non-invasive tests for cancer and hard-to-diagnose forms of Down syndrome and markers for autism.

Empire Genomics works with groups developing pharmaceutical drugs to determine the best treatment for each patient, an approach to health care known as personalized medicine. The goal is to avoid some of the costly trial-and-error approach of drug development and ensure patients receive only the drugs and treatments that will help them.

Company officials Thursday announced that they have developed a test – billed as the first of its kind – to determine the best course of treatment for multiple myeloma.

This malignant blood-cell cancer is not curable, but proper treatment can extend a patient’s life.

The company will conduct tests of clinical samples shipped to its clinical laboratory and will manufacture and distribute the test kits to other facilities, CEO Anthony Johnson said.

The test is expected to cost between $1,000 and $1,500, he said.

Empire Genomics, which has more than 1,000 customers, has hired Theresa C. Brown to serve as director of its clinical laboratory following a national search.

Business and political leaders said at Thursday’s announcement that the company’s success proves this area can be a player in the life sciences industry and that investment in basic scientific research can pay dividends down the road, as startup companies hire skilled workers.

“Gene-influenced therapy is the wave of the future,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, “and a company like this is at the forefront, and a city like this is at the forefront.”

Empire Genomics is the type of small, high-tech company, with growth potential, that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo believes the state should invest in, said Sam Hoyt, the regional president for Empire State Development, which has approved a $400,000 grant for the company.

Hoyt, a former member of the Assembly, contrasted Empire Genomics with the kind of “silver bullet” development project into which this region previously – and unsuccessfully – invested so much of its hopes.

“We don’t need a Bass Pro to revitalize the economy,” Hoyt said.

Empire Genomicsmoved in 2011 from the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences to 6,500 square feet of space in the Western New York Medical Arts Building.

The company hasn’t grown as quickly as its executives had hoped. In 2007, they told The Buffalo News the company would employ 60 people within five years and revenues would grow from $2 million to $50 million annually over the same period.

“We’ve gone through a lot of challenges,” Johnson said at Thursday’s announcement.

The company employs 12 people today. Johnson said in an interview that the recession made it hard for Empire Genomics to raise capital and forced the company to put its expansion plans on hold.

The company has raised about $2 million in capital since 2006 and is in the process of raising $3 million more from investors, he said.

The company no longer provides revenue figures but Johnson said Empire Genomics turned a profit last year and expects to do the same this year.

“We are a strong growth company,” he said.