Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

A new medical testing start-up called Detect began selling COVID-19 at-home molecular tests through its website last week. The company also announced its CEO – Hugo Barra, a former executive at companies like Meta and Google who previously worked on hardware products such as smartphones and virtual reality.

Unfortunately, the timing was coincidental — the launch coincided with an almost unprecedented rise in COVID-19 cases in the United States, powered by the omicron variant. It is nearly impossible to find a home test for the virus. Detect’s website shows the tests are sold out, noting that “limited quantities” will be available every day at noon.

“During this kind of high-pressure, high-voltage period, when people really need these tests, we operate just in time — we receive inventory, we put it up for sale and literally ship it out the door,” Barra said. The edge. At this time, customers are limited to one test per household, spokesperson Anthony Ramos said in an email to: The edge. Detect’s multi-use test platform and one single-use test are sold for $75. Additional tests are $49 each.

Detect’s tests look for the genetic material of the virus, such as the PCR tests sent to labs for analysis. The company joins a handful of other groups conducting similar molecular tests at home. They differ from rapid at-home antigen tests, which look for proteins on the surface of the virus (and can be less accurate than molecular tests).

Molecular testing is an unusual career move for someone like Barra, who previously worked in Android product management at Google, at Chinese cell phone maker Xiaomi and the virtual reality team at Facebook (now Meta). He told The edge that he started working with Detect founder Jonathan Rothberg while still at Meta, whom he left in May of this year to join Detect full-time. Barra says he was interested in taking his experiences in electronics and tech products and applying them to consumer-facing health technology. Health products often look and feel like they were designed a decade or two ago, he says, and aren’t on the same level as consumer electronics like smartphones and virtual reality headsets in terms of user experience.

“Part of my impulse to get into the health tech world, and especially the consumer health world, was to try and get that kind of DNA — no pun intended — and take these playbooks out of the consumer electronics world,” says Barra. While Detect was created specifically to build a COVID-19 test, it wants to expand its testing offerings into things like sexually transmitted diseases and other respiratory diseases, Barra said.

The edge spoke with Barra about making the transition from consumer technology to health and how Detect plans to grow during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Detect launched with the aim of testing for COVID-19. Do you plan to expand to other viruses?

The platform we’ve built can be reprogrammed to target any kind of genetic target. We have plans to run home tests in a few different rooms. We are building an STD test and a respiratory panel test that would look at things beyond just COVID. We also look at a sore throat test, which would be helpful in helping parents understand whether their child has a sore throat due to a bacteria or a virus. And then there are others that we’re not quite ready for yet.

What is this type of test useful for, especially when compared to rapid antigen tests, which are currently cheaper?

Rapid antigen testing and rapid molecular testing both have their place in the world, and it’s a combination of both used properly that we think is going to be really powerful as a public health tool. Rapid molecular tests are tests that can detect the virus earlier than rapid antigen tests. It’s the one you use when you need a really high quality answer. It also works effectively as a confirmation test for a rapid antigen test. Antigen tests can give false positive results, so if you get a positive result there, it’s generally a good idea to confirm it with a molecular test of any kind.

Right now your tests are quite expensive and can be prohibitively expensive for many people – especially now when demand is so high and people have to test often. Is that something you think could improve in the future?

Our goal for this product is to bring it down to the price of a rapid antigen test. That’s what we want to achieve, and we think we can get there because our product is so simple that we can make it cheaper with volume and more automation. We can certainly do that in 12 months and probably in six.

How does healthcare differ from other areas you’ve worked in, and what have you learned about those differences over the past year and a half?

There are two things in particular that you really need to learn quickly if you are going to get into the world of consumer health, aside from all the science. The first is quality. In the world I come from, it’s basically quality control – you test a product and make sure it doesn’t fail, and there are thresholds to how often it can fail. In the healthcare world, it’s a completely different game. You really have to follow a pretty strict set of quality management guidelines to make sure you pay attention to every step of designing and testing a product. Frankly, any company in the world would benefit from that – it just leads to you making better products.

The second is regulatory. We have built a very healthy and successful partnership with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in the United States, and we are building partnerships with regulators in other parts of the world. It’s a humiliating experience. These people understand what we build like no other and sometimes even better than we do because they’ve seen it at so many companies. Ultimately, it also forces you to build a better product.

Tech companies are clearly more and more interested in the health space. Are there things you learned from this experience that would tell your former colleagues at major technology companies about working in this field?

I would probably come back to the importance of being really humble and really not trying to do everything yourself. In Silicon Valley, and especially in the big tech companies, there’s a general sense of ‘we can do anything’ – because we have some of the best people in the world and we can invest infinitely. But that’s not really enough. You have to really understand the landscape, you have to work with public health systems and you have to be humble. You have to build those partnerships from the start.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *