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."

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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