Few Dickinson businesses felt the impact of the Great Recession.
As stock prices fell, the national housing market crashed and consumer confidence dipped, southwest North Dakota largely weathered the storm.
Trial Runners tells a different story.
Patrick Healy, who in 2006 co-founded the Dickinson-based contract research organization (CRO) with his wife, Jill, was just beginning to see their business succeed when the recession hit. Soon, entrepreneurial pharmaceutical and biotech companies — Trial Runners’ clients that were largely financed by venture capitalists — began going under.
“Companies were shriveling up and dying, and the companies we had weren’t paying us. It was torture,” said Healy, Trial Runners’ executive chairman. “If it wasn’t for the community that we’re in, I don’t know if we would have made it.”
The business “hung on tight” through the recession, Healy said, and has emerged a bigger and better company.
Trial Runners provides pharmaceutical and biotech research companies with clinical research management services in the field of ophthalmology and organizes tests for eye-related drugs in the process of being approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Since Trial Runners Was founded, Healy said the company has worked on more than 50 clinical trials and has evaluated drug safety and effectiveness for more than 5,000 patients in 16 countries.
The company employs 36 people throughout the country, including 15 at its Dickinson office. It plans to add at least nine more positions here in the coming months to help with a registration study — one of its biggest to date — for a new glaucoma treatment.
Healy, a New York native, said Trial Runners couldn’t have assembled as quality of a staff on the East Coast as it has in Dickinson. He credits the “North Dakota work ethic and persona, and level of loyalty and responsibility, and the can-do attitude” that have helped the company succeed while working with scientists and entrepreneurs whose careers may hinge on a clinical trial.
“They really feel like we’ve got their back,” Healy said. “It’s service-with-a-smile type of thing. Good old hard work and happiness.”
The right place
The Healys met while working for the same pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. Jill, who is from Dickinson, headed east after graduating from North Dakota State University.
The couple soon found themselves working with ophthalmologists and running clinical trials on a drug to alleviate macular degeneration — a condition in the eye that causes loss of vision.
“It was an exciting time just because there wasn’t really a good therapy out there for this,” Patrick Healy said. “We fell in love with ophthalmology during that experience.”
When their company was bought out and everyone they worked with went their separate ways, the Healys wanted to start their own CRO. They chose Dickinson over spaces in New York and New Jersey.
“He wanted to move here. I think I’m the New Yorker and he’s the North Dakotan,” Jill Healy said with a laugh. “I was shocked he was as enamored with the people here and the surroundings as I was.”
Patrick Healy’s perception of the area is paying off. Not only did locating in Dickinson help the company weather the recession, but it also has been the source of an unexpectedly deep talent pool.
Many of Trial Runners’ employees are Dickinson State University graduates, and the company rarely brings in out-of-state employees, though Patrick Healy said Trial Runners has invested a lot of time and patience into training its employees.
“As bright as they all are, we still have to train them on the industry and clinical research,” he said.
Brittany Brown, a project manager who graduated from DSU, said she’s happy to have found a field that puts her biology degree to use.
“I wasn’t even anticipating doing anything like this,” she said. “It’s something that’s certainly very unique to this area, so it’s fun to — even when you’re talking to people in the community — just kind of explain what we do.”
Courtney Roshau, a senior research associate who received a microbiology degree from North Dakota State University, laughed as she described how she “pushed my way in” to Trial Runners through an internship.
Roshau said she most enjoys how the position has allowed her to combine aspects of multiple fields she could have worked in, from teaching science, to being a pharmaceutical representative, lab technician or data statistician.
“You’re getting every bit and piece of every industry, which is really cool,” she said. “You won’t get bored because something always comes up every day.”
One of Trial Runners’ newest employees, Cheryl Lantz, left a long-held teaching position at DSU to become one of the company’s clinical research associates in January. She’s training to create medical writings for the company and perform in-house research.
“At one point in my career, I thought, someday I want to get more involved in research and I actually want to produce research and work within that scope,” Lantz said. “That was a big draw to me, to come in and work in that research environment.”
When the Healys first started Trial Runners, Patrick said he and Jill were running the clinical trials themselves. Now, with the team they’ve assembled, they’re able to delegate.
“They’re responsible for these major undertakings,” Patrick Healy said. “It makes me proud of them to know that they’re from here, and now they’re doing this important work that they probably never thought they’d be doing.”
Jill Healy said the decision to build Trial Runners in Dickinson is paying off, not only for business but for their family. They have four children, ages 6 to 11.
“I think being out here is a complete blessing,” Jill Healy said. “Not only is a fantastic community, it’s been the same community — the core values — since I was born here.”
The company looks poised to continue growing, too.
Trial Runners’ 2015 profits have already surpassed 2014’s totals, and late last year the company expanded to occupy more space in its portion of the Bank of the West building in downtown Dickinson. It now has 7,000 square feet of space and likely needs more, Healy said. They even have a new logo that was unveiled in January.
The biggest goal, however, is to one day be recognized as the leading ophthalmology CRO in the nation, Healy said.
“The industry is only so big in ophthalmology,” Healy said. “There’s only going to be a certain amount of clinical trials going on, but we want to increase our market share.”