Diagnosing man’s best friend
What drove Dr. Anja Geretschläger to launch her genetic diagnostics company, Feragen, in 2012 was her dog Nala. When the purebred Labrador moved in, she and her husband Michael thought they knew what to expect. From day one, however, Nala had all sorts of allergies. Anja began to do some research and what she found out led her to start her company. Feragen aims to simplify genetic diagnostic procedures and make them easy and coherent for pet owners and breeders.
The “eureka!” moment
A Labrador was the reason for the couple to start the company. Photo credit: Feragen
When Nala started showing signs of disease, Anja says “the biologist in me wanted to test everything”. She found that genetic diseases in purebred dogs are not uncommon. But the diagnostic labs Anja found required blood samples and blood is hard to work with.
Since cells from oral mucosa samples are much more stable and can be stored at varying temperatures for longer periods of time, Anja thought she could try sampling canine DNA with the same procedure used for humans – by swabbing the inside of Nala’s cheek. “So I devised a quick-and-dirty solution of how to get the DNA data from those samples…like CSI,” Anja laughs. This procedure has another big advantage: Owners can take samples at home to determine their dog’s breed (or the combination if it’s a mongrel) or even get a complete genetic diagnosis, without having to go to a veterinarian or laboratory.
From belief to business
To be honest, going into business for myself was not a big hurdle for me, since I didn’t have all that many alternatives.”
Anja is a molecular biologist and geneticist so her main interest was in finding a scientific solution, not necessarily starting a business. “She had the same problem that all academics have,” her husband Michael interjects. “They have an idea and think it’s good, but they only care about the idea.” She was going through a hard patch at the University of Salzburg. Her contract was running out and they debated whether she should try for another three-year project position. “We had played that game twice before,” says Michael, with a sigh. “You sit around for half a year, biting your nails, hoping that they approve one of your projects.”
Michael has experience as a businessman, so after a few intense conversations Anja and he decided they could give the idea a shot by forming their own company. “To be honest, going into business for myself was not a big hurdle for me, since I didn’t have all that many alternatives,” Anja admits. They went to the Business Creation Center in Salzburg, which offered them an AplusB grant for two years that ends after November 2014, after which it’s up to them to keep the company going.
Meeting the customers’ needs and beating the competition
Anja made it her goal to detect genetic diseases in dogs; Photo credit: Feragen
There is a general stigma surrounding genetic diagnosis and, especially for breeders, the relationshiphas a lot to do with trust and consultation. “Some breeders are afraid that people will think there is something wrong with their dogs if they get them tested – that they’re sick and can’t be used for breeding,” explains Michael. Anja wants breeders to produce healthier purebred dogs, but also wants to educate the breeders and future pet owners about the inherent risks involved with certain breeds. Sometimes she’ll have long telephone conversations with breeders, listening to their problems and concerns, “but that’s just part of our service and that how we find out what our customers need and want”.
There are already companies that offer diagnostic services, but none with a similar all-in-one approach. There is definitely competition in the German-speaking marketplace when it comes to defining a dog’s breed, but the results from these tests are vastly different from Feragen’s. “You can get much more data from the DNA,” explains Michael. A report from Feragen can be 16 pages long and is very customer-oriented. This is how the Geretschlägers want to set Feragen apart from the other companies.
Building a successful business with your spouse
At meetings with investors or consultants, Anja would introduce herself and explain that her husband covers the business side of the company. “The reaction was usually, ‘oh god, husband and wife’, ” often followed by immediate rejection or a reluctance to believe that they would succeed. The fear was that if their relationship failed, so would the company.
The couple themselves see positive and negative sides of living and working together. “On the negative side, you take personal conflict with you to the office, and vice versa,” says Michael. On the other hand, both Anja and Michael believe it is important to have someone by your side who completely understands you. To keep their relationship healthy, they take days off together to do things unrelated to work. Michael completely respects her authority as a scientist and Anja trusts his judgment as a businessman. Technically, his role in the company is as consultant and husband. Anja is currently Feregan’s only employee.
Business changes you
The company started selling products on its website only since the summer of 2014. Since then, they have also been speaking with breeders and building their brand. “If a startup can make money and be in a good business position after one year, it’s like winning the lottery,” Michael believes. While Feragen is not making a profit yet, they are earning revenue. In October, they received one test order nearly every day.
Anja describes how she has changed since founding her own business: “I don’t let people push me around anymore.” Michael agrees that she has become much more confident. Anja believes the company will be increasingly successful and that there is plenty of room for improvement and expansion. Their next step will be employing an assistant, either in the lab or for administrative tasks. Oh, and Nala is doing much better.
This story is brought to you in partnership with AplusB, a programme funded by FFG.