‘The right place for us’

Brenau business incubator a hub for COVID testing

Nancy Benitez, WC ’17, has seen two sides of the coronavirus.

The Women’s College of Brenau University alumna and adjunct professor was hired in mid-May by Pro-GeneX, a Gainesville-based pharmacogenetics company, as a lab technician tasked with testing COVID-19 samples. About a month later, Benitez found out that she had tested positive for the virus.

Samples for COVID-19 tests at Pro-GeneX. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“It definitely gives you an interesting point of view,” Benitez says about her work in the lab. “It makes it more real. I know at the end of the day that a positive can mean a big difference in your life. And a negative can as well, as it can be a sigh of relief for some people. Because I did have COVID, I am living out one of those consequences of a positive test result. Being able to run the test every day is an experience that I didn’t think
I’d get to see on both ends.”

In late spring, Pro-GeneX expanded its operations in the Business Incubator at Brenau University, which works with startups, inventors and entrepreneurs to develop great ideas into sustainable, standalone businesses. The company set up a new lab and reconfigured some equipment to run COVID tests. It has since been able to run 600-700 tests per day with a turnaround time of about 12 hours, according to CEO Robbie Rupard.

Benitez got her start at Pro-GeneX with the help of Gale Starich, dean of the Ivester College of Health Sciences — from which Benitez earned her biology degree and now teaches in the same program.

“I was supposed to just help out with a few things to get them started with COVID testing,” Benitez says. “But then I got invested. I got to know the team and the process. Eventually I became a part of that team.”

Benitez says her positive test came as a surprise because she only saw her immediate family and took other precautions such as washing her hands, disinfecting and wearing a mask. Her mother, who worked at a hospital, took the same precautions, but ultimately got the virus, which was passed on to other family members.

Nancy Benitez, works on COVID-19 testing at Pro-GeneX in the Business Incubator at Brenau University. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“I was out of work for about a month and a half,” Benitez says. “The first two weeks were miserable, and I didn’t leave bed at all. I didn’t eat much and had to go to the doctor to get meds so I could eat. And even to this day, those things that you don’t think about are still lingering. I wasn’t expecting them to linger for this long.”

Once she was able to go to work, Benitez returned to training and helped the lab prepare for all of the work ahead.

“Now that we have everyone on board, it’s just seeing how we can help our community,” she says. “We take the sample from start to finish, and it’s really cool being able to directly work with these samples all the way up to seeing actual results. It’s awesome that I get to work with it.”

Rupard credits the incubator for allowing Pro-GeneX to provide fast and efficient testing for the surrounding community.

“It was the right place for us because we wanted to build out a lab where we could do things to benefit the community and also do some innovative things,” Rupard says. “And it also helped by connecting us very quickly to local businesses and health care community.”

Pro-GeneX’s work has made a significant impact on the community in the months since they began checking for COVID-19. Since May, the company has run more than 18,000 tests.

“We believe the impact on the community is that we’ve been able to provide a reliable result quickly, so that people could get on with their lives,” Rupard says, “because reopening and doing it safely is important. Controlling the spread of the virus is important. And you can’t do that with a five to seven-day resolve. You have to do it with fast results, and we’ve been able to do that.”

The staff of Pro-GeneX.

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