Startups

Pearl Diagnostics founder Dr. Kieren Marr’s journey to retirement — then to full-time CEO

The former Johns Hopkins professor's company raised a $3.5 million seed round to commercialize its pneumonia test in the US.

Pearl Diagnostics CEO and founder Dr. Kieren Marr.

(Via LinkedIn)

Dr. Kieren Marr retired from a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University at the beginning of this year because she knew the impact Pearl Diagnostics would have on diagnosing fungal pneumonia.

In April, Marr’s Baltimore-based medical company finished raising a $3.5 million seed round (noted in an SEC filing last month) to commercialize and bring its less invasive fungal pneumonia test to hospitals in the United States. To keep her intellectual property, Marr left her post as a full faculty member after 15 years with the university and became an adjunct professor.

“The conflict of interest arises for faculty entrepreneurs,” Marr told Technical.ly. “Making this move was a very difficult decision. There’s not been a time in my adult life where I’ve not been taking care of patients as a physician or learning how to do it.”

She started Pearl Diagnostics in 2014 as a Hopkins spinout and arm of her academic laboratory. For 30 years, Marr had been working as a physician but ultimately saw the opportunity to impact thousands. When you’re at the peak in years and you start to look down on the valley that is your life, you start to think about impact, legacy and autonomy for how to spend your time. Changing the company’s name from Mycomed Technologies to Pearl Diagnostics was both a rebranding and renewed commitment to going all in on the company.

“Either I see a whole lot of patients and do good that way or I step out and see if I can do something even bigger,” Marr said. “It’s a bigger impact to actually make a product like this that can help people.”

This new diagnostic test, conducted using urine, helps those with immune deficiency, prior organ transplants, cancer and, increasingly, those with COVID that get respiratory infections. The current standard test to find fungal pneumonia places a tube down the nose or throat into a patient’s lung to collect fluid via a procedure called bronchoalveolar lavage. With Pearl Diagnostics’ new test, doctors and nurses will be able to find a disease that has a 60% to 80% death rate in transplant patients, according to Marr.

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“The government was seeing so many bad outcomes — even though there’s a lot of new drugs, we don’t know when to use them,” Marr said. The government’s will to find a solution for this issue was why she was able to fund her company through close to $5 million in nondilutive grant funding from organizations like TEDCO, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

The current raise isn’t about scaling it’s instead about getting the company’s fungal pneumonia diagnostic tech through FDA clearance and in hospitals by the first quarter of 2023. Marr plans to keep Pearl Diagnostics a lean company and doesn’t intend to hire a bunch of staff with the funds.

The Baltimore Business Journal reported that the company has two versions of its urine antigen test that both detect fungal pneumonia, or aspergillosis, in different circumstances. One device processes up to 100 tests in bulk for a hospital setting. The other device is personal, akin to a rapid COVID-19 test, to be used one-on-one with doctors or nurses.

In Europe, the test has already been cleared for sale. Marr has been researching to create the test since 2005. A 2010 urine study at Johns Hopkins laid the foundation for what Pearl Diagnostics is today.

“We couldn’t start just from what was known in science,” Marr said. “The knowledge was a gift that our patients gave us. Some of those people, I can see their faces in my memory. I’ve been doggedly stubborn about getting to the answer and getting this diagnostic out there because this is really about them and the people to come.”


Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.
Companies: Johns Hopkins
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