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The Power of the Underdog

Kevin Conroy in lab

The Power of the Underdog

A global pandemic may have made the class of 2020—and all of us—feel like underdogs. But Kevin Conroy believes being an underdog is a gift. “Eleven years ago, I joined a small team with a lofty goal,” said Conroy, who grew up in gritty Flint. “We wanted to eradicate colon cancer through amazing DNA tools to detect it early. We were underdogs for sure. The science was complex and unproven, and many doubted or even dismissed us,” he told soon-to-be graduates in a virtual commencement address this spring.

Conroy, the company’s CEO, said he tapped his Spartan resolve to help propel Exact Sciences Corp. in the creation of Cologuard—an inexpensive, noninvasive home screening test for colorectal cancer, the second deadliest cancer in the United States.

“We’ve now helped more than 4 million people,” Conroy said in his address. The test is correct 87% of the time.

“It’s incredibly energizing to know that our collective ability and experience are making a real difference in the early detection of cancer, a space in which few companies have been able to carve out a leadership position,” he said.

But Exact Sciences isn’t resting on its discovery.

 

Underdogs have the advantage that they don’t have a lot to lose, so they think and act differently. They challenge the status quo. Underdogs are tough and resilient, just like Coach Tom Izzo and his team.

 

“When the pandemic hit, our team adapted our technology to test people for the coronavirus. I’m just as excited we’re putting our skills and know-how to work bringing other products to market where we can make a similar difference,” he said. “We now have the capacity to run millions of novel coronavirus tests this year.”

Over the past decade, Exact  Sciences, based in Madison, Wisconsin, has added four more research  enterprises. A publicly traded company, it moved its workforce of 4,000 into a new 169,000-square-foot lab-oratory and warehouse in Wisconsin last year.

This year the College of Engineering presented Conroy with one of its most prestigious awards, the Claud R. Erickson Distinguished Alumni Award, recognizing technical leader-ship, entrepreneurship and innovation in engineering. 

He assured MSU’s soon-to-be engineering alumni—faced with unexpected unemployment rates and countless unforeseen challenges—that they too can prevail.

His prescription for beating the odds? “Relish your role of being an underdog. Underdogs have the advantage that they don’t have a lot to lose, so they think and act differently. They challenge the status quo. Underdogs are tough and resilient, just like Coach Tom Izzo and his team.”

When faced with adversity, the United States always rises to the occasion, Conroy said. “Now you have the ingenuity to help secure our nation’s and world’s prosperity and build a brighter future.

“Remember, engineering is ultimately about helping others. We build and invent new things to improve people’s lives. Whether through medical innovations, new methods of transportation or just ways of keeping our planet healthy.

“We need you more than ever and we need that character that defines Michigan State graduates.”

Author: Lois Furry, '89

Spartan Profiles — Summer 2020


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