Pandemic innovation

University of Houston spinout's smartphone COVID-19 test to head to market

Luminostics, which was founded out of a lab at UH, received NIH grant to produce its COVID-19 rapid antigen test. Photo courtesy of Luminostics

A Silicon Valley startup with Houston roots is helping tackle the COVID-19 pandemic with its smartphone-based coronavirus test.

Milpitas, California-based Luminostics, a University of Houston spinout, is producing millions of its Clip COVID Rapid Antigen Test for U.S. consumers after receiving emergency authorization for the product in December. The emergency approval closely followed the National Institutes of Health awarding a $26.1 million contract to Luminostics to speed up development of the coronavirus test. According to a news release from UH, Luminostics is working on an affordable next generation hardware system to reach the mass over-the-counter market at scale.

Chemical engineers and UH alumni Bala Raja, the CEO, and Andrew Paterson, the chief technology officer, began forming their company in the UH lab of Richard Willson, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and professor of biochemical and biophysical sciences.

The technology developed in the UH lab aims to equip consumers with rapid self-diagnostic tests for the flu, HIV, herpes, and other conditions by detecting the presence of bacteria, viruses, small molecules, hormones, and proteins. But Raja and Paterson put that strategy on hold last year and pivoted to re-engineering their technology for COVID-19 testing. The result: the Clip COVID Rapid Antigen Test.

"When we realized that COVID wasn't just a bad flu and that it was actually gonna go crazy and affect as many people as it has, we decided that everything we've done could be very quickly repurposed to make two different tests," Raja told Inc. magazine in April.

UH alumni Andrew Paterson and Bala Raja are co-founders of Luminostics. Photo via UH.edu

As UH explains, the Clip COVID test relies on a nasal swab, a smartphone clip, and glow-in-the-dark nanoparticles to detect a coronavirus infection within 30 minutes. In the phone, an image processor measures the intensity of the luminescence signal. If the signal is strong enough, the result is positive. If it's weak, the result is negative.

"We live in a world where you can have all your basic necessities delivered to your home through an app, and yet this pandemic has exposed how far behind the diagnostics industry lags compared to consumer technology and the convenience economy," Paterson tells UH.

Funding from the National Institutes of Health, venture capital firm Khosla Ventures, investment firm Lynette Capital, and startup accelerator Y Combinator has helped support the Clip COVID Rapid Antigen Test. The startup entered the Y Combinator program in 2016, a year after Raja and Paterson established Luminostics.

In April 2020, French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi said it was exploring a collaboration with Luminostics on the COVID-19 test.

"The diagnostics industry is saturated with products that cater to big, centralized labs or testing in the doctor's office," Paterson says. "There are many applications where it does make sense to do testing in a centralized lab, but there are dozens of other applications where there should be home-tests and there are not, because few companies have tried to take on the technical and regulatory challenges with developing home-testing."

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

Trending News