Shea Harrelson is co-founder of Vikor Scientific, a molecular diagnostics company launched in 2018 in Charleston. Vikor Scientific identifies pathogens and antibiotic resistance genes in patients. In April 2020, the company moved into new office and lab space at Charleston's WestEdge development, built as a hub for life sciences research and collaboration. Vikor has experienced rapid growth this year by offering COVID-19 testing along with its core services.
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From second grade on, Shea Harrelson planned to be a medical doctor.
But she altered her course and instead became a physician assistant at the urging of her father, who recognized her curiosity and desire to try new things.
"He told me that he was afraid that if I went to med school and went through all of this schooling, that I would eventually feel stuck because I'm always looking around the next corner, and I get bored very easily," Harrelson said. "He encouraged me to go to PA school, to look into that career, because it's a career in which you can change disciplines a lot easier than becoming a pediatrician or a cardiovascular surgeon."
Harrelson calls it the best career advice she has received.
After earning a PA degree at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, she practiced for nine years in Greenville, S.C., before shifting gears to sell medical equipment for St. Jude Medical. After a few years there, Harrelson felt the urge to start her own company.
She began with a sales team taking medical products to market. That work, coupled with an interest in the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, led her to join forces with her current business partner, Scotty Branch, to found Vikor Scientific in 2018.
The company uses molecular medicine to identify pathogens causing respiratory, gastrointestinal, urinary tract and other types of illnesses. It looks for the DNA makeup of pathogens known to cause the majority of infections in the United States, providing results within 24 hours. The approach is different from the traditional culture methodology that seeks to grow pathogens in a medium.
Vikor also tests samples for a panel of antibiotic resistance genes, helping doctors determine which antibiotic to prescribe.
Harrelson sat down with the Charleston Digital Corridor to discuss her company's work, growth and future.
In your own words, what does Vikor Scientific do?
We help providers detect infections faster and more accurately. For the layperson, that's how they would see this molecular medicine. On the inside, what we do is DNA sequencing of pathogens so that we can figure out what's causing your infection.
The reason that we're here is because, as a provider, I saw the heat that was being put on providers years ago about antibiotic stewardship. You know, "Why can't these doctors prescribe the right antibiotics?" And it always came back on the doctor. "Well, they didn't prescribe the right antibiotic for me." Or, "This buildup of (antibiotic) resistance is because providers are just writing antibiotics like candy."
You kept hearing that, and I thought, "Well, how unfair, because providers don't have the tools to get to the end goal here. What are they supposed to do?" There was culture and sensitivity, that was the only thing that they had out there. You're waiting seven days for something to grow in a petri dish. You're not going to wait and not treat your patient. It was this catch-22, and I felt like they couldn't win.
So that really is what motivated me toward molecular medicine, because providers needed to have a diagnostic that they could get in 24 hours so that they could wait to treat their patients, they could give them the right antibiotic based on their pathogen and resistance that was detected. And you prevented some of those costs or adverse drug reactions or failed therapies, and you had better outcomes for the patients.
How did you meet your co-founder, Scotty Branch?
We were trying to launch a product with a company together that didn't work, but we had time to work together and realized we both had an urgency about us in our work ethic. That was refreshing, because I always felt like no one else did.
And then our skill sets are completely different. That was very complementing to each other when we went out to try to sell the product that we were working on at the time. We noticed that those opposites really worked well in the business realm. We only worked together for a few months, but then when I started pursuing the molecular infectious disease, I gave him a call and asked if he wanted to join me and build this together.
You began in 2018 with a focus on antibiotic resistance, but now COVID-19 testing is a big part of your business. How did you pivot to that?
We were primed and ready. Fortunately, this is what we do. We test for infectious diseases. COVID is one of 250 pathogens that we test.
With COVID, it was at the right time for us because it took a year to build this space out at WestEdge, but it was ready to go and we had just moved in (in April). Without it, we would've not been able to support COVID like we have because we did not have the space at the SCRA building where we started.
WestEdge gave us the whole eighth floor, 22,000 square feet, and then the fourth floor for office space, and then additional room on other floors as we needed it.
Because of that, it allowed us to just soar. The only thing we had to do was validate the assay. We had all of the instruments. We are doing 10,000 to 12,000 tests daily now. We have the capacity for about 20,000 daily. We had a lot of quick hiring and growing to do, but that's one thing that Scotty and I do well. We operate with a sense of urgency and we make fast decisions, and I think that's how we've grown and moved so quickly.
How many employees do you have now?
We have about 240 employees now. Probably about 120 in South Carolina. The others are sales representatives that are employees in the field, in every state other than New York.
You committed to space at WestEdge in 2018. How many employees did you have then?
Twelve. It still makes me a little nervous to think about that conversation. If it was me alone, I probably would've thought a lot more about it. But my partner is definitely a forward thinker as well, so I think together we felt a little more strength in saying yes to that.
How much of your recent growth is from COVID testing?
Definitely all of the new hires are due to COVID. But what COVID has done for us is given us exposure to a lot of different clients – hospitals and nursing home chains – and they've been able to see everything else that we do.
Urinary tract infections are the No. 1 infections in nursing homes, and then respiratory. But now, all we're hearing about is respiratory. COVID has given us the exposure to them, and now they look at everything else, and they start doing other testing and not just COVID.
You just opened a lab in the Philadelphia area as well. What is your strategy with that location?
Serving that state, you get more of the commercial plans around that state from a reimbursement standpoint. We'll probably have a site out West at some point, just to be able to serve those regions better. We can get any sample overnighted with FedEx. Even from Puerto Rico, we get samples. But it's something to be in that region to be able to gain more acceptance from the commercial payers and to integrate yourself into their network.
And just overflow. We learned early on to diversify. If we have a hurricane that takes down Vikor for two weeks, then that would really hurt our business. Obviously, it would hurt anybody's business. Having another site that we could divert all of our samples to, it really protects the business.
**What do you see as the future of your company? **
I think that we will either be taking a new diagnostic to market or moving into therapeutics. I feel like what we're doing now, advanced as it is, is just the base of what we can build on. I definitely feel like in three years, we're looking at jumping from diagnostics to therapeutics so we can really complete the circle there. But I think we will always be in diagnostics.
What connections do you see between your company and local medical institutions?
Dr. Saeed Khan, who is our president of research and development, is now adjunct faculty at MUSC as well as USC in Columbia and Johns Hopkins. He's already talking to them about different opportunities for research and forming committees to help bring the MUSC students over here for internships and fellowships. They're trying to develop that now, which is one thing that we're very excited about. We built an education room for that purpose, to be able to bring in college, undergrad and post-grad students in here to teach them more about what we do in molecular medicine.
One of the hardest things about growing the business that fast is being able to find candidates that have the type of experience that we need. It's just not being focused on so much in schools. From fifth grade on, they're still learning about culture and sensitivity, and that's a far-gone methodology. They should have PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machines in all the schools, but it's expensive. That's one thing that I want to do in South Carolina is get PCR machines in schools because it starts so early to get their interest so they do want to go into programs later, so they can learn about molecular medicine and nanotechnology and really the future of where all of our diagnostics are.
Outside of work, what keeps you busy?
Family. Husband, three kids and three dogs. That is full, and that's probably what helps me to stay focused at work. I've really learned how to unplug when I'm away from work, which took me many years to do. That's probably the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur, especially as a woman, a mother and a wife, is everybody needs your time, and they don't need your tired time. They need your good time, your family and your business.
How do you find that? Probably my quietest time of day is on the way to work. I never turn the radio on. I'm either praying or maybe listening to Priscilla Shirer. She rocks my world. She speaks the truth and just gets me fired up for the day. Sometimes I'm just quiet. I think you've got to find that place where you recharge.
Is there a book that you always recommend?
"More Than a Carpenter," by Josh McDowell. I have always loved that book from the time I was in college because it's a simple read but such a profound read. If I had one encounter with someone and wanted to give a book to them, that's what it would be.