Front Line Against the Pandemic: Q&A With Hologic CEO Steve MacMillan ’85 on How Their Rapid COVID-19 Test Got a Green Light from an Anxious Government

Hologic CEO and President Steve MacMillan at NASDAQ

Hologic CEO Steve MacMillan ’85

In late January, a couple of researchers at the medical technology company Hologic, Inc., went to their leadership team and said, “something is coming here,” said Steve MacMillan, the company’s chairman, CEO and president. The term COVID-19 had barely appeared and the broader “coronavirus” was making little news. The scientists, though, saw trouble in the reports they were receiving.

“In these kinds of situations,” MacMillan said, “we just go.”

They pulled researchers off projects that had been in the works for months.

This week, the FDA gave emergency approval to Hologic for a new COVID-19 test that can be processed faster, more accurately and in larger numbers than anything available. President Trump highlighted the news at his briefing Thursday. MacMillan, a Davidson College trustee and member of the class of 1985, offered behind-the-scenes insights on how the breakthrough test made it to the field.

How do you wrestle with the decision to dramatically shift what your company is doing when your researchers come to you with, in some ways, a hunch?
My very first thought was that I wish I had taken a whole bunch more science courses at Davidson! Second, I just listen to the team. I read their passion and their knowledge, and we bet on their proven track record…We obviously delayed other projects in our pipeline…It’s a bet on the people with the knowledge.

What has been the reaction from the governments trying to fight this virus and clambering for tests?
We’ve been very honest about how many we can produce (tens of thousands in March and 600,000 in April). We’ve personally been getting calls from many governors… Mike Pence’s task force, the FDA, DOD, the CDC… At the end of the day it’s a team sport. We’re not fighting for market share here. We are fighting for a much more important cause. 

How are you able to move quickly? You have an advantage in that 1,000 facilities across the country and another 700 around the world use your Panther Fusion testing system, right?
It’s a high throughput testing system that allows us to run more tests with a much higher degree of certainty. Our clients have been using it for flu tests, other respiratory ailments and other viruses, such as sexually transmitted diseases. Most of the existing COVID-19 tests were manually done in the lab with pipettes, drawing the sample, which means a lot more variability. Once we could identify the gene in the virus, we could produce a test that runs through our system, so it is automated and consistent.

What does the development of your test say about the role of the private sector in a crisis like this?
The CDC was trying to develop the initial test on their own, but realized they would benefit from our help. This is where the innovation, the speed and knowledge of the private sector comes into play. We had our systems in place all over the world, an installed base for a heavily automated solution. 

You’ve been here before, in the middle of a public health crisis. Hologic jumped in the testing for H1N1 and Zika. You don’t make much money out of these leaps into crisis, because the need for the product is short-lived, and you’re helping governments. How does that fit into the mission of a for-profit company?
These moments benefit us in some ways. Both Zika and COVID-19 tests use our Panther Fusion system, so it’s high profile proof of the value of our system, our product. But you’re right. We don’t know, for example, that we made any money off the Zika tests. It all comes from the sense of purpose. I watch my Davidson classmates, so many have gone into incredible service. We talk about leaders making a difference in the world. Some do it through the ministry. A lot do it through nonprofits. In my case, the really fun part about this is that I’m able to make a difference in millions of people’s lives in times of crisis. It’s sort of my little contribution as an alumnus of Davidson. Every time I’m at a trustee meeting, I see all these people who are doing so many great things. I can feel pretty small sometimes. This helps me feel like I’m pulling a little of my own weight.

Published

  • March 20, 2020

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  • Alumni and Family Engagement
  • News Headlines

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