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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Raleigh startup tackling dog cancer testing

Six million dogs are diagnosed with cancer annually, so Raleigh-based Animal Cancer Dx sees a potentially big market for its early detection test. It’s the latest venture of Raleigh investor Chan Namgong, who is a former chief operating officer at the Johnson Automotive dealership group and owner of two startup businesses, Commercial Space Management and HomeCloud.

Chan Namgong

Namgong worked with Daniel Midkiff, an North Carolina State University research assistant, to develop the screening test. Animal Cancer Dx now has about 30 Triangle clinics and hospitals using the technology.

Namgong discussed his career and company in this interview

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Seoul, South Korea, then moved to Raleigh when I was 15 in 2000. I’ve lived in Raleigh ever since. I went to Ravenscroft and got a business degree from UNC Chapel Hill.

You’ve called your dad your biggest influence. Tell us about him.

He started young as an entrepreneur, and sold furniture parts and made real estate investments in Korea. When we moved to the U.S., he bought a struggling clothing store, and quickly turned it around and made it very successful.

What has been your dad’s best advice?

He’s always believed in me and encouraged me to take risks. He would point out opportunities that I would dismiss otherwise. Had I not taken his advice, there could have been many times I would have regretted so much. His best advice has been “work hard and stay humble.”

What sparked your interest in animal cancer?

After my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, I read a lot about cancer detection and cancer treatment. One day, I came across a peer-review journal where a group of scientists used C. elegans to detect cancer in human urine. It sounded too good to be true, and sparked my interest.

Instead of going straight to the human space, I wanted to run a proof-of-concept in the veterinary space, which didn’t have any cancer screening test options at that time. A veterinarian friend, who helped collect cancer and non-cancer urine samples, and I found a company in Oregon that can run the proof-of-concept experiments. They came back with promising data, and the rest is history.

How did you meet Daniel Midkiff, your chief scientist? 

N.C. State University has a research lab dedicated to studying C. elegans , which is a model organism used in many scientific disciplines. I reached out to the lab’s leader, Professor San Miguel if she knew anyone with whom I could work on our venture. She introduced to Danny, who was about to graduate with a Ph.D from her lab. He liked my vision, and joined the company.

Who else works at the company?

We have another full-time lab technician. We have a team of 13 scientific advisers. They are veterinary professors, clinical veterinary oncologists, and general practice veterinarians.

How did you convince 30 Triangle clinics to use your product? 

It wasn’t too difficult because it’s a tool that they had been needing for a very long time. We have a competitor called PetDx that also has a multi-cancer screening test. They are a venture capital-backed biotech company based in San Diego.

You can think of them as Goliath and us as David. We are bootstrapped and haven’t raised any money yet. We have two major advantages over PetDx; 1) we only need 1 milliliter of urine whereas they require 15 milliliters of blood and 2) our retail price is between $99 to $199 depending on the hospital, while there’s is $1,000 to $1200.

We’ve added two clinics in Knoxville, Tennessee. We are talking to a couple of clinics in Charlotte.

People love their dogs and are spending more on them. Will that continue?

Absolutely. Morgan Stanley recently published a study about the growth of the pet industry. Pet care innovation is going to lead the way, and I’m confident that Animal Cancer Dx will play a pivotal role in this sector.

Many people seem willing to spend whatever necessary to care for their pets. Is that changing? 

It’s becoming more price elastic and competitive than ever before. There are more innovations happening in the pet industry, and they are going to bring down the costs overall. In general, pet owners are less price sensitive when it comes to taking care of pets. But when they have more options and choices in products and service, they are going to shop for better prices.

How much capital have you raised? PetDX has raised $62 million.

We haven’t raised any yet. I personally put in $500,000 and have gotten $60,000 grants from NC IDEA and $100,000 award from the N.C. Biotech Center. We are looking to do an angel round in early to mid-2023, and a seed round in 2024. I’ve been very thoughtful about raising capital given the economic environment.

How can your test be more effective than a rival brand charging much more?

Our mission is to make our test reliable, affordable, and accessible to as many pets as possible. In order to achieve our mission, the cost is very important. We are trying very hard to keep our overhead costs down and not waste money on corporate bells and whistles.

Will direct-to-consumer be your dominant channel? 

I expect DTC will become our dominant channel once it’s launched in late 2023. We are developing the next Microfluidic assay method, which will play a key role in our DTC strategy. We are also developing testing kits with help from UPS so we can transport samples safely.

Are you still active at your previous startups?

I’m still active as an adviser at HomeCloud. My co-founder, George Kirkland, is the CEO, and he’s one of the smartest entrepreneurs I know. I’m the 100% owner of Commercial Space Management, which is a commercial property cleaning company. I have a leadership team that manages the day-to-day operations.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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