Biotech business ranks among nation’s fastest-growing companies

Sept. 3, 2019

This paid piece is sponsored by South Dakota Biotech.

One of the nation’s fastest-growing companies works out of a nondescript strip mall on West 12th Street. From that under-the-radar headquarters, it quietly has expanded its evidence-based fatty acid testing services into global markets.

OmegaQuant started in a single room at 5009 W. 12th St. in 2015, after graduating from the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship.

It’s now in four suites, including one the company just leased that will hold a robot designed to package its signature omega-3 test. That test ships to four continents – generally between 4,000 and 6,000 kits every month.

The test is based on research Dr. Bill Harris began more than 30 years ago. In 2009, he began to commercialize his Omega-3 Index Test, which measures the amount of omega-3s EPA and DHA in the blood.

“It’s been steady growth,” said CEO Jason Polreis, who joined the company in 2011.

OmegaQuant recently ranked No. 2,271 on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies, with 177 percent growth in the past three years and $2.5 million in revenue last year.

“Most of the growth from the last year is domestically. Our direct web sales are a small part of it, but more growth has occurred as supplement brands have been using it as part of their expansion into personalized nutrition,” Polreis said.

Harris co-invented the Omega-3 Index in 2004 as an objective way to measure the intake of omega-3s in the diet, which are found in fatty fish such as salmon and omega-3 supplements such as fish oil.

Since then, more than 100 papers featuring the Omega-3 Index have been published in medical and scientific literature. Furthermore, the original paper establishing the rationale for the Omega-3 Index as a new risk factor for cardiovascular disease has since been cited in more than 700 research papers. In fact, a study published last year showed that the Omega-3 Index is a better predictor than cholesterol of death from heart disease.

The OmegaQuant Omega-3 Index test uses a dried blood spot to measure the level of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA+DHA, in red blood cell membranes expressed as a percentage of total fatty acids.

An Omega-3 Index in the range of 8 percent to 12 percent is one indicator of better overall health. Favorable omega-3 levels have been shown to be important for heart, brain and joint health and are below recommended levels in many people.

Supplement brands can offer the test to show customers their omega-3 levels and also to demonstrate their products are working, Polreis said.

“Some brands have a subscription model, so they will send the Omega-3 Index test kit as a gift, or they might bundle two or three bottles of fish oil with a free test,” he said. “And some are selling it as a standalone product.”

The company has looked at getting its tests into retail stores, and “eventually, that’s the plan,” Polreis said. “There’s interest there.”

International business has contributed to the growth as well. OmegaQuant began a lab partnership in Australia to offer its tests in the Asia-Pacific region and set up a similar partnership in Scotland this year that it expects will service Europe.

“We got the test kits registered as medical devices in Europe, which is absolutely essential and allows us to sell it legally in Europe,” Polreis said.

In the U.S., the tests are categorized as a wellness device and can be marketed as an over-the-counter general health and wellness product.

Over the past decade, the company has added more fatty acid tests to its portfolio, including its latest product, the Prenatal DHA Test.

The latter is a focus for director of research Kristina Jackson, who is Harris’ daughter and an Augustana University graduate who received her doctorate in nutrition from Penn State University.

“We wrote a paper to propose that pregnant women should test their blood DHA levels because there’s research by others that shows low DHA levels can identify women at increased risk for early pre-term birth, and there are a lot of studies that show giving DHA as a supplement reduces pre-term birth and elongates the gestational period,” she said.

“So those two pieces of evidence together made us feel like we should offer this.”

OmegaQuant also offers a mother’s milk DHA test, which analyzes a drop of breast milk to determine its DHA content. Omega-3 DHA is an important part of developing a baby’s brain and is present in breast milk. If a mother is found to have lower than recommended levels, she can adjust her diet.

“So both the blood and milk DHA tests are a way we’re trying to target OBs and the pregnancy population,” Jackson said. “It’s a completely different market for us.”

What’s next

As personalized medicine and at-home testing become more pervasive, the company sits in an opportune place, Harris said.

The goal is that ultimately measuring someone’s omega-3 level using the OmegaQuant Index becomes the standard of care – as  common for providers as testing for blood glucose or cholesterol.

“I think we’ve always had two goals, and they compete and collide,” Harris said. “One is to advance the science, so we give very favorable rates for researchers because we want to see papers published to advance the science, which makes us different from other labs. But we’re also a business, and we’re still in a niche market with fatty acid biomarkers – even nutritional biomarkers – but it’s worked out.”

The company also is starting to branch outside of omega-3 analysis. It’s developing a dried blood spot-based vitamin D test, which seemed a natural extension as both vitamin D and omega-3 are found in fish and have similar effects.

“I see a growing demand for more nutritional-type testing from blood spots collected at home,” Polreis said.

The OmegaQuant staff has grown to 15 people in Sioux Falls, and its leaders said they plan to keep growing the company here.

In some ways, it still feels much like a grass-roots startup. The Lincoln High School band even helps assemble test kits in the basement as a fundraiser.

“But the vast majority of our clients are not local South Dakotans – they’re from all over the world,” Jackson said. “As long as we can find staff and get mail, we’ll continue to grow here.”

The company is a prime example of how a bioscience startup can take root in the state, said Joni Johnson, executive director of South Dakota Biotech.

OmegaQuant won the Governor’s Giant Vision award in 2010, setting the stage for almost a decade of growth.

“OmegaQuant is such a tremendous success story for our industry and our state,” Johnson said. “And this company truly could just be getting started. The applications for their tests and the markets they could branch into are going to make them one to watch for years to come.”

Biotech business ranks among nation’s fastest-growing companies

From an under-the-radar headquarters in western Sioux Falls, this biotech company has become one of the fastest-growing businesses in the country.

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