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Houston health tech startup launches game-changing, at-home coronavirus testing

Houston-based Imaware has launched at-home testing that can identify if the patient has — or even had — the coronavirus. Photo via imaware.health

Politicians, scientists, public health officials, and others continue to stress the need for widespread testing to tame the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Houston-based startup Imaware, an at-home health testing platform, recently rolled out an at-home coronavirus test for high-risk people, such as someone with both a fever and recent exposure to someone infected with the virus. Now, it's gearing up to offer an at-home test designed to spot the presence of coronavirus antibodies in your blood.

Experts view antibody testing as a key to corralling the virus and rebooting the virus-crushed U.S. economy. However, some skeptics fear the benefits of antibody testing are being oversold.

As explained by Health.com, a nasal swab test can detect a coronavirus infection. But a blood test can pinpoint whether a person has been exposed to the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness, and might now be immune to it.

Jani Tuomi, co-founder of Imaware, says his company is working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on approval of Imaware's antibody test. The in-home blood test might be available as early as May.

"We're still trying to make sure that everything checks out and validation is completed," Tuomi says, "but it looks like it's headed in the right direction."

In early April, the FDA approved the first test in the U.S. to detect coronavirus antibodies.

Tuomi says the process for Imaware's coronavirus antibody test will be similar to the one for the coronavirus detection test. Both tests, for instance, will be administered by licensed clinicians.

Here's how the basic test works.

To request a coronavirus test, someone completes a 10-question assessment at imaware.health. Austin-based startup Wheel, Imaware's telemedicine partner, created the online assessment.

Someone is given the go-ahead for testing if, as determined by a licensed health care professional, he or she falls into certain risk categories. For instance, somebody who's been exposed to a person with coronavirus and is over 60 years old would be approved for a test.

If health insurance covers the test or a patient pays for it entirely out of pocket, the test costs $135. (The home-based antibody test will cost about $120 to $125.) Public health agencies, including the Houston Health Department, can authorize a test for someone who can't afford it.

A trained health care professional goes to a patient's home to collect a test sample (by taking a nasal swab for the coronavirus test or drawing blood for the antibody test). A CDC-authorized lab then tests the sample. If needed, a board-certified health care professional can provide post-diagnosis care.

Results of a coronavirus test typically are available within three days. Tuomi says he hopes the results window for the test can be narrowed to between one and two days by the end of April.

"As a patient-advocate company, we are uniquely poised to be part of the testing shortage solution in Texas," Tuomi says in a March 23 release announcing the Imaware coronavirus swab test. "Our online platform, telemedicine partner, and in-home sample collection empower patients to take control of their health and access COVID-19 testing from the comfort of home."

Founded in 2018, Imaware employs 14 people. Others involved in the testing process, such as in-home testing clinicians and telemedicine experts, work for third-party partners. As the company adds to its testing lineup, Tuomi envisions the workforce rising to around 30 to 40 people by the end of 2020.

Earlier this year, Imaware (whose legal name is Microdrop LLC) had concentrated on home-based remote screening and monitoring for conditions like celiac disease and heart disease. But once it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would be striking the U.S., the company shifted to coronavirus testing and, now, to antibody testing.

Before Imaware jumped into coronavirus testing, Tuomi performed a swab test on himself and realized that it wasn't feasible for anyone to do self-testing. On top of that, evidence surfaced that self-collection of test samples was producing a lot of false-negative results, he says. Subsequently, the federal government blocked self-testing for the coronavirus.

Today, health care professionals handle Imaware's at-home coronavirus testing and will handle the at-home antibody testing. The testing initially launched in Houston then expanded to the rest of Texas.

Tens of thousands of people have done coronavirus self-assessments through Imaware's online tool, Tuomi says. Far fewer people — in the hundreds — have actually fallen into high-risk categories based on the self-assessments and then have qualified for testing.

Tuomi says that as testing capabilities grow, Imaware will be able to accommodate people who fit into medium-risk coronavirus categories. Also, the company plans to offer its coronavirus test in states that neighbor Texas. Imaware hopes to provide its antibody test throughout the U.S.

In tandem with the public testing, Imaware teamed up with Austin-based energy tech startup RigUp to enable daily coronavirus screening at oil and gas jobsites. Imaware and RigUp are piloting the screening with several RigUp customers; they hope it eventually can be supplied nationwide.

"A cornerstone of the Imaware solution is the patient-centric approach offering superior telemedicine care from diagnosis to recovery," Tuomi says.

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Building Houston

 
 

Adrianne Stone has joined Capital Factory's Houston operations as the company prioritizes digital startup interaction. Photo courtesy of Capital Factory

For years, Capital Factory has existed to promote innovation and grow startups across Texas and has expanded from its headquarters in Austin to Dallas, Houston, and beyond. In light of COVID-19, the organization has pivoted to make sure it can work with startups remotely and online.

"I think Capital Factory has successfully embraced virtual first," says Bryan Chambers, vice president of the accelerator and fund at Capital Factory. "I think it's gone well and it feels like we're just hitting our stride."

Chambers admits that the onset of the coronavirus had a great effect on Capital Factory — SXSW being canceled did its damage on the organization, which has a huge presence every year. However, cross-state startup collaboration is the driving force behind Capital Factory's Texas Manifesto.

"We're one big state, and we're one big startup ecosystem," Chambers says. "The resources across Dallas, Houston, Austin, North Texas, and San Antonio are available for everybody. Candidly, COVID aligns with that. There's no better time — COVID is erasing the boundaries in a virtual world."

In addition to navigating the transition to virtual operations, Capital Factory has also introduced its newest Houston staff member, as Adrianne Stone has started this week as venture associate for the organization. Stone received her Ph.D in Translational Biology and Molecular Medicine from Baylor College of Medicine before heading out to the West Coast and working at 23andme. She brings both her experience with health tech and Silicon Valley to her position.

"The mindset in Silicon Valley is different from how it is here in Texas — in good ways and bad ways. It was interesting to be exposed to a very potent startup vibe," Stone tells InnovationMap. "I'm looking forward to being able to meet all the cool companies, founders, and investors we have here in the Houston area."

Stone replaces Brittany Barreto, who helped in coordinating her replacement and is staying on part-time for the rest of August to help with training and immersion into the ecosystem. Barreto, who is one of the founders of the recently launched startup masterclass Founder's Compass, has also introduced a new brand called Femtech Focus, that includes a podcast where she talks to innovators in the women's health and wellness space.

"I'm ready to get back into the founder's saddle," Barreto says, adding that there's more to come for Femtech Focus.

Throughout her tenure, Barreto has overseen Capital Factory's Houston portfolio companies — both identifying potential investment opportunities and connecting startups to resources and mentors. She passes the torch to her former BCM classmate, and says she's excited to do so to a fellow Ph.D.

"The last year and a half, I've working really hard on laying this foundation. I don't want all that hard work to go away, so I cared a lot about who was going to take my position," she says. "I wanted to make sure that all my founders had someone who cared about them as much as I do."

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