Genomics entrepreneur Lisa Shaffer opens DNA center for dogs
Someone starting a canine DNA diagnostic center in Spokane qualifies as news. That the co-founder is Lisa Shaffer makes it even more so.
In 2003 Shaffer co-founded the successful Signature Genomics, a DNA diagnostic lab based in Spokane, primarily used by clinicians and doctors for parents addressing early-childhood diseases.
Shaffer left the company in 2012. This coming spring she and her husband, Jeff Shaffer, will launch Paw Print Genetics, with offices in the McKinstry Innovation Center east of downtown.
The company plans to offer canine genetic tests to breeders, trainers and dog owners who want to ensure their dogs lead healthy, productive lives.
SR: Why did your next business turn out to be focused on canine genetics?
Shaffer: I was looking for a new challenge. What we’d done (in the earlier company) was focus on human health care. That’s an area being well taken care of by many companies.
But I found that canine genetic health is not being well taken care of in the United States.
It’s important that we pay attention to our four-legged friends. Many of them do work for us, service dogs and security dogs. So we’re going to be very focused on service dogs, and we’ll work with breeders and trainers and owners to help make sure their dogs can live productive lives.
SR: How will that happen, how does the service work?
Shaffer: If you are trying to produce healthy dogs with the traits of the breed, you should think of doing genetic screening before breeding. Because an owner obviously creates a bond with that dog, you don’t want that highly trained dog to develop problems two years later.
So, we propose to only select and test for more than 100 genes where, if you have that mutation, you will develop that problem.
There are some canine genes that give you a predisposition toward a disorder. But we’re not testing for those until they are better understood.
We’ll only test for those which are black and white, which if they are, they will develop a disorder.
SR: How much will that cost?
Shaffer: Most times the test will involve a panel of say 10 genes.
A panel will run from $200 to $300. The prices are based on the number of genes in a panel.
SR: How many breeds can be tested?
Shaffer: We will test in about 165 breeds.
SR: Who will your customers be?
Shaffer: Serious breeders and anyone who’s involved in training service dogs, such as in agriculture, or health-service dogs, or dogs used for security and rescue.
A breeder who uses our tests can charge more for his dogs, because they’ll have a certificate saying which panel of genes have been tested and shown there’s no genetic problem.
We want to be known for helping our clients increase the value of their dogs.
So for instance, when someone gets a Seeing Eye dog, they can feel confident that dog will provide 10 years of good service.
SR: How expensive is the lab equipment needed to do DNA testing?
Shaffer: Our equipment costs about $300,000.
SR: What else do you need?
Shaffer: We are contacting owners of purebred dogs and getting cheek swabs of their dogs to use as our references.
So we go out with kits and do the swabs, and those will be our specimens to establish the test references.
We need to do the different breeds because they’re not identical. We’re trying to get three swabs for every one of the 165 different breeds we will test.
SR: Is this area a good place for dog DNA services?
Shaffer: It’s excellent for hunting dogs and sporting dogs. There are at least three active dog clubs for training dogs and doing agility and obedience training. I think Spokane has plenty of opportunity for purebred owners to participate.
We also want to get owners to use our tests and swab their own dogs. That way they can give us feedback on how well they can follow our directions.
SR: What’s your role as CEO?
Shaffer: I stay out of the way of our scientists. My job is to get us to launch, to talk to the community, to talk to breeders and hunters and consumers in general.
SR: Do you own a dog?
Shaffer: We have a miniature dachshund. She has her own Facebook page. She blogs about canine genetics.
And we have two big mutts. They’re giant dogs, a mix of lab and German shepherd and one may have some Saint Bernard.
SR: Are other companies out there doing this as well?
Shaffer: There are a handful of other companies offering genetic testing for dogs. But most of them just do trait and breed identification. They can tell if a dog is purebred. We’re doing medical genetic testing for dogs, not trait testing.
Because we came from being in the human genetics field, we bring a human genetics quality standard to this testing that I don’t see out there currently.
Meaning the way samples will be collected will be in a sterile environment. And all cheek swabs will be in tubes bar-coded for each animal.
SR: How will this company be different from your last one?
Shaffer: Part of our vision and strategic goals is to provide stable jobs for the Spokane area. But I don’t want this company to get too big.
Signature grew really fast. When we sold it, it had 120 employees.
My vision is to have 35 employees and to generate enough revenue to put back into the company for some fun basic research.
I want a small company where I know everyone’s names, and everyone’s spouse’s names, and on a good day, to know everyone’s kids’ names.