Before he ever thought of starting a business, Charles Cathlin devoted 23 years of his life to the U.S. military. He first served in the Air Force as a bio-environmental engineer and later in the U.S. Public Health Service, working for organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.
But it was during a stint with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in 2001 that his career trajectory took a major turn.
“Two to three weeks after I took that position, 9/11 occurred, and I ended up being deployed with one of the medical teams down at Ground Zero,” Cathlin says. “That experience, seeing the firefighters and how they were mentally traumatized — it was very clear they were very traumatized by that event. The entire community was really suffering, and that had a big impact on me. That’s when I pivoted my career to learn more about behavioral health and also medical technology.”
Cathlin pursued a master’s degree in public health, conducting research on military psychology and resiliency programs. This was how he identified major gaps in the behavioral health system for diagnosing service members and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related mental health conditions.
“What was clear to me is that the way we identify individuals who need help is a broken system," says Cathlin. "We wait for people to go through a lot of suffering before we actually provide help."
Cathlin teamed up with scientist Tshaka Cunningham to start the behavioral health company TruGenomix in 2018. The company produces a patented sequencing test called True-Gen1 that examines an individual’s genome to identify biomarkers for PTSD and other mental health conditions. The accompanying TruGenomix Platform generates a digital report that synthesizes the test results with a risk survey and other health data to create a complete PTSD risk profile.
This reports allows clinicians to identify and recommend appropriate interventions for those at high-risk for PTSD far earlier than traditional sequencing technology.
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Like many companies, COVID-19 has brought on a fundraising obstacle for the business, where investors decided to pause their relationship. Cathlin responded caution by trimming expenses and carving out a full year of runway for the company.
“I had to go back and look at the resources that we had, see how much of a runway we had for the company, and where I can make some cuts, so that we can expand,” Cathlin says. “I had walked in with the assumption that once COVID hit that this was going to be a 12- to 18-month problem. If I can expand that runway to two years, that would be great. We delayed the hiring of folks so that we have that 12- to 18-month guarantee.”
That might not be necessary, however. Cathlin says that investors have already reopened conversations, with the company currently in talks for multiple deals. And in the midst of COVID-19, TruGenomix is expanding beyond veterans to serve a new demographic experiencing trauma.
"You see healthcare workers and essential frontline workers impacted by COVID, which is effectively a global traumatic event," Cathlin says. "On top of that, you’re seeing a lot of isolation, depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions. We believe this is going to be the next pandemic in mental health and we’re preparing our company so that we can be as helpful as possible as it starts to play out.”
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