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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

 
 

Fertitta and his family have gifted $50 million to UH's medical school. Photo courtesy

As Houston’s most high-profile billionaire and owner of the posh 5-star Post Oak Hotel and Houston Rockets, Tilman J. Fertitta has become synonymous with over-the-top opulence and big-time entertainment.

But the CEO of the massive Feritta Entertainment empire’s latest move has nothing to do with penthouses or point guards, but rather a legacy, game-changing appropriation meant to aid his home state’s health.

The longtime UH board member and former chairman and his family have just pledged $50 million to the University of Houston College of Medicine. In turn, the new medical school has been christened the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine.

The projected school, upon completion. Rendering courtesy of University of Houston

This landmark gift aims to address the state’s critical primary care physician shortage, (especially in low-income and underserved communities), as well as attract innovation-focused scholars, UH notes.

Additionally, the grant is meant to further clinical and translational research, with an emphasis on population health, behavioral health, community engagement, and the social determinants of health, according to a press release.

Here is how the Fertitta family gift will be distributed:

  • $10 million funds five endowed chairs for faculty hires who are considered national stars in their fields with a focus on health care innovation. This portion of the gift will be matched one-to-one as part of the University’s “$100 Million Challenge” for chairs and professorships, doubling the endowed principal to $20 million.
  • $10 million establishes an endowed scholarship fund to support endowed graduate research stipends/fellowships for medical students.
  • $10 million will cover start-up costs for the Fertitta Family College of Medicine to enhance research activities including facilities, equipment, program costs and graduate research stipends/fellowships.
  • $20 million will create the Fertitta Dean’s Endowed Fund to support research-enhancing activities.

No stranger to writing big checks, Fertitta donated $20 million to UH Athletics — the largest individual donation ever — in 2016 to transform UH’s basketball arena into the now high-tech Fertitta Center.

CultureMap caught up with the CEO (who just sold his Golden Nugget gaming for $1.6 billion), best-selling author, and Billion Dollar Buyer to discuss his landmark gift.

CultureMap: Congratulations on this legacy grant, which has been a long time coming. What does this gift mean to you, now that it’s finally official?

Tilman Fertitta: This was a vision of our chancellors and, you know, I’m on my third, six-year term and not been the chairman for eight years — and we started working on this, seven, eight years ago.

To be able to be in the beginning and the nucleus, and the idea, and what we wanted, and to get the approval from Austin—to watch it come to fruition, how often does somebody get to do a naming gift at the same time they had a lot to do with the creation of the school? So, it was very special in my heart.

CM: Many know you as the CEO of a hospitality empire, author, and even TV personality. But not many know of your commitment to healthcare.


TF: I think there’s one thing in this world that we definitely should always be treated equally on, and that's that’s equal health care for all. This medical school will serve the whole community.

We’re trying to recruit students who want to be primary physicians who will take care of the community that we live in. It’s just something that was very important to me in my whole family.

CM: Academia, scholarship, and research aside, this could essentially be looked at as seed capital for a fledgling operation. Is that a fair assessment?

TF: I know where you’re going with this and yes, it’s no different than business.

I have the vision to know that being in nearly the third largest city in America and a top 100 university in the United States — as University of Houston is according to U.S. News & World Report — that I know what this is going to be in 50 years. It’s no different than looking at another business that you start and you can have the vision to see how successful it'll be in the years to come.

Being on the ground floor of the University of Houston Medical School and being a part of it from its inception, and to help the seed money that will attract other money, I know that in the years to come what a special nationwide medical school this is going to be — because it’s in one of the great cities of America.

So, to be a part of it today and still be a part of it when I’m not here 50 years from now, maybe even sooner than that [laughs], you know, it’s going to be something very special to always be attached to.

CM: Other Houston medical schools here have distinctions in pivotal research or groundbreaking procedures. Is there a specific direction you’d like UH Med to take, going forward?

TF: Honestly, you know, what I’ve been saying? There’s a significant shortage of primary care physicians, not only in the country, but in the state of Texas. We ranked number 47th in the nation.

What we need in the state of Texas, as well in Houston and everywhere, is primary care physicians to take care of your everyday people—and to see them to know if you need a specialist.

I hope that this medical school looks back and we see that they’re graduating more primary care physicians than any other university in the United States and that's our goal. We’re going to be a med school of the community.

CM: You have zero problem with issuing directives, Tilman. What’s your message to the first graduating class, the one that will initially benefit from this $50 million gold mine?

TF: Go out and take care of the people.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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