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Interview with Mark Harris, Owen Alum entrepreneur

Trisha Fridrich

Recently named a 2015 Nashville Health Care Fellow, Mark Harris is focused on transforming the way genetic tests are ordered. In September, NextGxDx was invited to appear at the TEDMED 2014 conference as part of "The Hive" series, celebrating the impressive innovations that are transforming the health care industry. We had a chance to catch up with Mark and ask him a few questions:

“NextGxDx is a healthcare IT company dedicated to improving the genetic test ordering process for the medical community, that helps physicians order genetic tests by providing them with the information they need to find the right test for their patients.” When might someone need genetic testing and how does your company help them?

There are a variety of reasons why people require genetic tests, but the majority of test volume is to diagnose the thousands of rare genetic conditions.  These often appear in early childhood.  So many of our heavy users work in major children's hospitals, trying to help understand the root cause of a child's epilepsy, for example.  The way NextGxDx helps them is that we add efficiency to the industry as a whole.  We help the clinician find the right test, and add transparency into the cost of the test.  We are the only technology tool allowing them to compare tests directly between labs.  We also provide workflow tools to assist the hospital in processing the test and getting results back to the ordering clinician.  Finally, we help the hospital manage their genetic testing formulary, and have shown we can reduce their costs by 10-20% in this area through more efficient test procurement.

You’ve raised more than $6M from three funds. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs walking into a pitch meeting?

Fundraising is about building relationships.  Your first round investors need to trust you, believe in your vision, have faith that you can recruit a fantastic team, and have confidence that you can execute.  Early on, that's all you have, because there is no product and no customers.  You need to inspire that first round of investors.  For later rounds it's important to build a track record.  So even in your early stages, make it a point to pitch to groups that you know you are too early for.  Don't be afraid to say, "I know we are too early stage for you, but I would like you to see what I'm doing and provide me with some feedback."  It removes the pressure, and makes it easier to connect with them.  These may be the people that end up funding you two or three years down the road.  Be good to them, and follow through with everything.

You have had a wide range of experiences both before and after graduating from Owen. Was there a skill or a class in particular at Owen that you couldn’t live without today?

My internship was critical in influencing my path.  I worked at a genetic diagnostics company and helped them transition onto a new DNA sequencing technology.  I was lucky enough to be brought in through their corporate Leadership Development Program, so I had access to all the senior leadership team, and was given a top project, with access to any and all resources I needed.  This experience provided me with insight into the genetics market that eventually led me to form NextGxDx.  The internship also provided me with the confidence that I could lead teams and solve difficult business issues.

As for classes, the one class that has been the most obviously useful to me over the years was Advanced Excel Analysis with Larry LeBlanc.  Early on building the company I needed to run my own financial modeling, what if scenarios, etc.  The skills I learned in that class made me way more efficient.  Based on what I learned in that one mod I can still run circles around plenty of finance guys in Excel!

If you could go back to Day One of NextGxDx and spend 15 minutes with yourself to communicate any lessons learned and save yourself future mistakes or heartache, what would you tell your former self?

"Start networking with programmers.  A great CTO is absolutely critical to your business.  You need to understand how these people think and how to identify someone who can step into this role.  Your company won't make it if you don't have the right CTO."  I got lucky and found the perfect person for this role, but not before I had gone through 3 others.  The early pace of my business suffered for it.

What’s been your biggest surprise – good or bad - at NextGxDx?

I have had two major surprises:

1) How long everything takes.  As an entrepreneur you want everything to happen right now, on your own time and terms.  You are quick and nimble, and hungry for opportunity.  But you may be selling into large, slow organizations.  You can't force a sales cycle.  It's a bitter lesson that I continue to learn over and over.  You need to be patient, and plan for things to take way, way longer than you expect.  That includes product development, sales, and fundraising; none of it happens on your time.

2) How much fun it would be.  I originally expected a 3-5 year exit.  Four years later, and I feel like we are just hitting our stride, yet I'm more excited now than when I started the company.  One of the main reasons is that the team is so fantastic.  When in your life do you get to pick and choose exactly who you want to work with every day?  As an entrepreneur you have that power to build the culture that best suits you and your company, and surround yourself with amazing, energetic, and inspiring people.  It is awesome!

We appreciate Mark taking the time to answer some questions. If you'd like to be featured on Owen Entrepreneurs, please contact us.