One in four dogs will develop cancer over the course of their lifetime, with half of dogs over the age of 10 falling victim to the disease. But empowered by the data collected by Raleigh-based Animal Cancer Dx’s non-invasive, early-detection tests for the four most common types of cancer that affect man’s best friends, dog owners should have less to fear.
Today, you can find Animal Cancer Dx’s team working towards direct-to-consumer (DTC) cancer screening for dog owners and AI solutions to tedious scientific practices. But for founder Chan Namgong—whose name you may recognize as the founder of woman’s clothing brand bevello or the former COO of Raleigh-based Johnson Automotive—the choice to attack the problems with non-invasive screening come from a deeply personal experience.
Five years ago, Namgong’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite his lack of scientific background, Namgong began to look into the newest cancer research. When a friend sent him a Japanese manuscript describing findings that cancer could be detected in a human patient’s urine, it was like a lightbulb went off: this research could make a difference stateside.
Namgong reached out to his friend, a veterinarian, and tested canine urine samples from the vet’s clinic in a West Coast lab. The promising evidence that this research could ultimately be translated to humans left veteran businessman Namgong at a crossroads.
“They came back with promising results, so I thought, ‘Okay, now what? What do I do?’,” Namgong said. “With me having no science background, I had to decide whether I was going to pursue it or not. I’m the type of person that doesn’t want to have regrets in life. So I was like, yeah, I’m going to do it.”
Fast forward to 2022, and Animal Cancer Dx has won both NC IDEA SEED and MICRO grants, plus a $100,000 grant from the NC Biotech Center. The company’s technology is being used in over 30 veterinary clinics and hospitals across the Triangle, and Namgong—with an undergraduate degree in business—is a published scientific author.
From shuttering his bevello clothing stores just a few years ago to co-founding two successful startups—including HomeCloud, which we wrote about in September, 2021—Namgong has made what many might consider a career transformation.
Animal Cancer Dx’s success hinges on its ability to make its tests affordable, reliable and accessible, Namgong said. Tests from company’s competitors cost up to $1,000, which prices out many pet owners.
With their screening tests ranging between $99 and $199, Animal Cancer Dx is a much more feasible option for most pet owners, giving them the ability to test their pets for cancer annually for added peace of mind.
“Everything is relative,” Namgong said. “When dog owners are spending $100 on a Halloween costume for their dog, $200 to test for a very common disease that could save their life is really very affordable.”
Moving toward DTC channel
The accessibility created by a low-cost urine collection test has opened up an opportunity for Animal Cancer Dx that their competitors lack: direct-to-consumer sales. No dog owner has the tools to safely collect their pet’s blood, but most dog owners have the ability to collect their urine, especially with the instructions provided with Animal Cancer Dx’s test. Once the urine is collected, a dog owner would freeze it to be tested by their veterinarian or sent off to Animal Cancer Dx’s lab partners.
Namgong wants to be perfectly clear: he knows veterinarians are integral to distribution of and trust in his product, and he is positive they will not be alienated or left behind as Animal Cancer Dx looks towards e-commerce. But e-commerce opens up a whole new world in the early detection of animal cancers—and thus earlier, potentially life-saving intervention.
“We want to make our tests as available and accessible as possible to pet owners because there are some pet owners that don’t have hospitals nearby,” Namgong said. “We want to build our e-commerce website, where pet owners can order a testing kit that has all the tools that they need—a paper tray, a pipette, freezing reagent that they can ship back with—so they can collect it and they can ship it back to us. And then we can analyze the urine and send the result back to them.”
Making dog cancer detection as accessible and affordable as “23-and-Me” isn’t all that the Animal Cancer Dx team is working on.
Alongside fellow IDEA grant recipient Vitality Robotics, Animal Cancer Dx is working on an artificial intelligence solution to pare down the time scientists spend counting cancer-detecting worms on agar plates, a task that today takes hours.
“Counting these worms day-in and day-out is very mentally taxing,” Namgong said. “Believe it or not, big pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Pfizer have PhD scientists who are behind the computer counting these worms or bacteria on agar plates. I thought, there’s got to be a software that can automate this. And there isn’t.”
With continued development on the worm-counting software and hopes of DTC sales by the end of 2023, Animal Cancer Dx is looking forward to a big year. With more dogs achieving better cancer treatment outcomes due to his company’s early detection, Namgong is hoping our furry friends have more good years on the horizon, too.