Pet boom benefits Paw Print Genetics

Spokane company adds testing products for cats, birds

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-Kevin Blocker
Lisa Shaffer, owner of Paw Print Genetics, says the company has experienced an uptick in business this year due to a variety of factors.

Paw Print Genetics owner Lisa Shaffer is on the path to building another big company, something she wasn’t sure she wanted to do.

Genetic Veterinary Sciences Inc., which does business as Paw Print Genetics, currently has 40 employees and is adding more. What she says she doesn’t want is a company with so many employees she can’t remember each of their names, which happened at Signature Genomics. 

No stranger to building successful companies, Shaffer co-founded the former Spokane-based company Signature Genomic Laboratories LLC, a biotech company that conducted genetic testing for children with developmental disabilities, in 2003. The company grew to 120 employees before it was sold for $90 million in 2010.  

At Paw Print, what first started as a genetic testing company for canine owners to determine the breed of their pets and reveal whether they may have preexisting health conditions, now has expanded to include testing services for cats and birds. Company lab techs currently are testing the feather samples from breeders of emus, ostriches, and peacocks, she says.

Meanwhile, business has exploded this year as COVID-19 forced the shuttering of many university labs—direct competitors of Paw Print—and because the pandemic forced many people to stay home, triggering a pet boom in the U.S., according to Shaffer.

Located on the entire second floor of an office building in the Franklin Park Medical Center, at 220 E. Rowan, on Spokane’s North Side, the pet genetics diagnosis company has hired five new lab technicians and a pair of customer service representatives this year in response to a surge in requests for DNA pet testing.

The company’s growth isn’t going unnoticed.

For the second straight year, Paw Print Genetics again made the business magazine Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing companies. The company ranked 3,967th with an 88% growth rate since 2016.

Shaffer declines to reveal the company’s annual revenues. However, this year’s Inc. 5000 list is ranked according to percentage of revenue growth when comparing 2016 and 2019. Inc. says the minimum revenue requirement for 2016 is $100,000 and $2 million in 2019.

Shaffer, a certified geneticist, is currently looking to hire three new lab techs to help keep up with high demand, she says.

“We were very relieved to see veterinary services listed as an essential business in Washington state,” Shaffer says.

While the pandemic has kept millions of people at home, Shaffer says another societal side effect has emerged.

“There’s a huge demand for puppies right now,” she says.

Dori Peck, the executive director of SpokAnimal animal shelter at 710 N. Napa, says the facility hasn’t been open to the public since March 16.

However, in working with its “transfer partners,” which includes businesses such as PetSmart and Kitty Cantina, a North Spokane cat café and bar, SpokAnimal has helped facilitate 1,300 cat adoptions since March 1, Peck says.

In a typical year, SpokAnimal handles 3,000 pet adoptions.

“The demand for dogs is high right now because people are at home and they’ve got the time to be with them,” she says.

“We’ve not had dogs since March,” Peck says.

Shaffer says pet breeders make up 80% of Paw Print Genetics’ customer base, and they rely now more than ever on DNA technology to breed the healthiest dogs. Paw Print Genetics’ remaining customer base is split between veterinarians and pet owners who want to know more about the genetic makeup of their animals.

Today, Paw Print Genetics offers more than 280 different DNA tests for more than 350 breeds of dogs, Shaffer says.

A DNA test on her own dog, named Frankie, revealed she has two genetic mutations that contribute to blindness.

“I think it’s very helpful to know this,” Shaffer says. “If she looks like she’s acting strangely, I find it reassuring to know that I’ll have some sense of what might be going on with her.”

Since Shaffer launched the company in 2013, Paw Print Genetics has expanded its suite of DNA testing services to include CatScan for felines and AvianDx for bird breeders and owners. Both services debuted a year ago.

CatScan’s not a breed identification test, but rather an at-home test that screens cat DNA for a variety of genetic variants that cause inherited diseases and traits.

Shaffer says the ability to predict a pet’s future potential medical problems can save pet owners money by avoiding the cost of veterinarian diagnostic testing down the road.

Meanwhile, Avian Dx was designed for bird breeders and owners who want to know the gender of their pet.

Several species of birds are monomorphic, meaning that males cannot be distinguished from females based on color, plumage, and size. Although they may look the same, male birds have two copies of the ZZ sex chromosome while female birds have one copy each of a W and Z sex chromosome.

“Clearly, breeders need to know the sex of the birds,” Shaffer says.

Avian DNA can be extrapolated from feathers shed at the bottom of a cage.

Pre-Paw Print

 

Waltham, Massachusetts-based health technology services provider PerkinElmer Inc. acquired Signature Genomic for $90 million in 2010. Shaffer went on to co-found Genetic Veterinary Services Inc. three years later.

Shaffer grew up in the Tri-Cities, where her father was a nuclear engineer at the former Hanford Nuclear Reservation. She completed her undergraduate degree in biology from Washington State University before going on to complete her Ph.D. in human genetics from the Medical College of Virginia, in Richmond, Virginia.

She and her husband, Jeff Shaffer, lived in Houston for a little more than a decade where Lisa Shaffer served as a faculty member at the Baylor College of Medicine.

The Shaffers moved their family to Spokane in 2002, at which time Lisa Shaffer split her work duties between Sacred Heart Medical Center, Washington State University’s Health Sciences Spokane campus, and the startup of Signature Genomics. By 2008, she says all of her attention went to operating the business.

Shaffer says it was somewhat of a relief selling the company, as it had grown considerably and she could no longer remember all the names of the company’s 120 employees.

However, by the end of 2013, in which time Paw Print Genetics had only sold a total of 29 DNA kits, Shaffer was beginning to question the wisdom of starting the business.

“I often thought, ‘Why’d I do this?’’’ she says. The company finally experienced its first profitable month near the end of 2015.

The company was recognized by the Spokane business accelerator Ignite Northwest at the beginning of the year in its inaugural 25+5 list, which recognizes 25 emerging companies and five up-and-coming businesses.

Moving forward, Shaffer says the company will need to secure its own building as it needs more space. The lease at the Franklin Park Medical Center building is scheduled to expire at the end of 2022.

Kevin Blocker
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