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Local scientist makes gains as entrepreneur

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In 1997, Madga Marquet and her husband, Francois Ferre, had enviable jobs in the local life sciences industry.

Marquet was overseeing gene research at a local biotech company. Her husband was a successful postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego. The couple had bought their first home in Encinitas.

So, when they decided to quit their jobs and start a company together, people thought they were nuts.

"Our friends told us we'd end up divorced," Marquet said, with a laugh. "But we had always wanted to start a business together."

Now, privately held Althea Technologies is projecting $15 million in sales this year and is eyeballing a couple companies for purchase.

Althea provides contract services to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries as well as federal agencies such as the National Institute of Health. The company specializes in screening genes and providing preclinical and clinical testing services.

"We thought by combining our two backgrounds we could provide some services to help investigators move products into clinics," Marquet said.

Marquet has come a long way from her native home of Andorra, a small country south of France. Around the time she entered school, genetic engineering was an exciting new science that Marquet found fascinating.

"I didn't know whether I wanted to be a doctor, or a scientist or an entrepreneur, but I knew I wanted to do something in this field," Marquet said.

She got her Ph.D. in 1983 from Insa-University of Toulouse, France, and went to work in biochemical engineering. After meeting her husband, the two decided to move to the United States to take advantage of the growing biotech wave and settled in San Diego in 1986.

After nearly a decade working for other companies, Marquet -- who shares the title of president and chief executive officer with her husband -- started Althea Technologies with $2 million in capital that they raised from investors. They set up shop in rented space at the General Atomics building on the Torrey Pines Mesa.

Althea has gone through its share of changes since it was founded in 1998. The company first delved into making reagent kits for researchers, a market currently dominated by companies like Carlsbad-based Invitrogen Corp. (Nasdaq: IVGN).

Althea did not fare well in that market, Marquet said. The company was losing a couple hundred thousand a month and, in 1999, got out of the reagent business.

The company switched gears and focused on making compounds that investigators could use to see whether an experimental drug was working in a clinical setting. The company raised another $1 million to fund the effort and managed to keep all 15 of the employees it had then, Marquet said.

"We had learned the hard way and became more disciplined," Marquet said. "Then things started to go well."

The company saw its first profits in 2000. Around the same time, Marquet and Ferre decided to expand their business and bought some technology from San Francisco-based GeneTrace Systems Inc.

The technology formed the basis of Althea's "Express Profiling" technology, which is used to analyze a dozen or so genes at once. At the time, most gene analysis products either screened thousands of genes or one gene at time, but Marquet said many diseases were 10 to 12 genes -- so their product filled a niche.

The company has since partnered with the National Cancer Institute and other groups to screen genes. Marquet said she believes the drug will have a major impact in the future for personalized medicine.

As for the future of her company, Marquet said she has no plans to take it public anytime soon. The company's business is about one-third in the biotech industry, one-third in the pharmaceutical industry and one-third in government contracts.

Marquet's leadership was recently awarded a Pinnacle Award from the University of California, San Diego's Athena Program, which recognizes executive women in the technology industries.

Marquet said that even though she has seen some success, she feels this is all just a beginning.

"There's still a lot of things that I want to do," Marquet said.

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