If we’ve learned anything in the last two months, it’s that we’re all one pandemic away from infrastructure breakdown.
We’ve seen critical supply shortages in response to the spread of COVID-19, mad scrambles for diagnostic tools, and direct and collateral costs that haven’t even begun to be fully grasped. Even first-world nations are woefully unprepared for large-scale medical crises. And the truth is rapidly becoming apparent: We’re all only as prepared as the least prepared among us.
Early innovations are already developing, focused on detection of potential viral health threats, disease treatments, and analysis of the countless data streams relating their spread. Some innovations may look low tech on the surface, but be revolutionary, like more and better training that expands the capabilities of health care professionals. One reality some may not have anticipated is the fact that many answers may be sitting right in front of us—if the resources can be harnessed.
For Patti White, CEO of biotech startup Hemex Health, this chaos leads to a remarkably clear conclusion: Medical technology needs a special kind of upgrade. Not just on capability, but availability and adaptability, as well. Hemex, which has received an SBIR grant, develops health-screening technology targeted at malaria and sickle cell diseases in developing nations. Now, Hemex is pivoting its R&D toward a coronavirus test device deployable wherever it’s needed. White and co-founder Peter Galen are driving toward low cost and access. Hemex’s portable units use miniaturized detection technologies to analyze blood samples and upload the data to the cloud for fast remote analysis. Even if there’s no immediate data connection, the information can be exchanged once one is re-established.
“I started my career in the early days of personal computers, where we were very focused on making technology affordable and usable,” she says. “My co-founder and I now apply this orientation to medical tech. Our goal is to improve the lives of many people with an approach that creates a sustainable business.”
Biotech: $729 Billion Market
Forward-thinking medical research entities like Hemex are already using the lessons from this traumatic period to zero in on innovations. So are others. Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which announced last month that it was opening a new biotech fund, is already assessing the likely long-term implications of the coronavirus threat.
Even before the pandemic hit, the global biotechnology market was expected to be worth $729 billion by 2025, according to a report from Grand View Research released in December. Biotech investing has been a specialized niche within the venture investing world, but the pandemic is likely to turn more investors’ attention to it. This will become especially true as governments increase funding for health care infrastructure, and more entrepreneurs go to work in the space.
Innovations in data collection and analysis, for example, could allow authorities to prepare for potential trouble, allocate resources, and better manage the fallout. Artificial intelligence will likely be a huge part of establishing that kind of foresight. Canadian startup BlueDot recently made news by using AI to detect the early spread of coronavirus before the World Health Organization announced its presence. Similarly, Boston biotech startup Rubix Life Sciences built predictive models that accurately anticipated the speed and paths of the coronavirus’s spread.
Detection technology such as what Hemex is developing will also be paramount. Startup Mammoth Biosciences quickly collaborated with the University of California San Francisco to develop a paper strip that uses genetic engineering technology CRISPR to detect the presence of COVID-19 in patients, while Silicon Valley-based Carbon Health focuses on virtual screening tools to determine whether testing is warranted before bringing patients into one of their 9 clinics in California.
A 2015 study published in Frontiers in Public Health argued that novel combinations of existing technology and simpler, more affordable distribution strategies can be disruptive in their own way. For instance, combining modern data collection—i.e., through mobile technology—with well-understood analysis: “Coupled with increasing availability and access to the Internet and mobile-based technologies, participatory [public health surveillance] has also emerged in recent years as an innovative method of engaging the public and collecting regular, voluntary syndromic data,” the paper noted.
Telemedicine, something that had been evolving in fits and starts, certainly counts as one of those –“right in front of our faces” innovations that’s now exceedingly relevant, given the increased demand for safer and speedier patient interactions with caregivers. Though in-person exams are ultimately a necessity, such technologies could serve as a force-multiplier during future pandemics. It will require stringent security protocols to ensure privacy, as well as robust technical reliability to ensure high-quality service during rush periods. Both Doctor on Demand, a startup founded in 2012 and based in the Bay Area, and Boston-based American Well are innovating in this field, working with insurance companies to spread access to their remote consultations for both medical and psychological care, building out the technology, and hiring medical professionals as fast as they can.
Finally, we’ve already seen an increasing awareness of the need for training of personnel who are tasked with front-line management of viral pandemics. “Training healthcare workers, mortuary workers, emergency responders, etc., to protect themselves is critical,” says University of Minnesota environmental health professor Peter Raynor. “Creating learning technologies and content to deliver this training in the current environment is challenging. Vivid Learning Systems, for instance, is developing and delivering innovative training systems to groups of workers who need it.”
Of course, no matter what entry point investors and entrepreneurs use, caution is paramount, particularly in a chaotic, still-unfolding trauma. Some entrepreneurs and companies that claim to be innovative are far from it, and fast-moving regulatory changes that follow pandemics open the door not only to well-intentioned and capable companies, but also opportunists and profiteers.
In just the last two weeks, multiple startups have begun marketing at-home coronavirus testing kits, touting them as FDA-approved, when the truth is that the companies are exploiting a loophole in a recent loosening of testing guidelines designed to speed the process for the current crisis. The guidelines don’t specifically address home-testing—a process that itself has to be strictly controlled to ensure accuracy and proper consumer education—so the manufacturers are using that omission as a green light for marketing the kits.
Beware is the take-home in all cases. But the world needs innovation and smart, fresh approaches to the challenges of global healthcare, and being able to separate the ideas that are gems from the duds will pay off hugely for everyone.
For White, the new reality suggests that “low-resource” settings—places the current pandemic is just now starting to invade—will need equal attention, given how readily the virus spreads in our modern world.
“These areas are often ignored by other innovators,” she says. “But the COVID-19 crisis emphasizes that the world is much more connected than many people have realized, and the low-resource countries cannot be ignored in addressing a pandemic. It will also become much more apparent in the next month that the high-end diagnostics that are used in the US—and are not even adequate here—cannot address the needs in areas that lack funding, trained technicians, and controlled environments.”