In this series, we explain why we invested in our current portfolio companies. In the process, we hope to highlight the white spaces in women’s health and the life sciences — as well as the people, products, and companies working to fill those gaps. The name “Under the Microscope” refers both to our extensive due diligence process and our investment focus on healthcare and the life sciences.
In December, the New York Times ran a feature: “Nobody Sees Us: Testing Lab Workers Strain Under the Demand.” That all-too-true story was heartbreaking — but also underlined why we invested in a company helping to address this crisis: Rhinostics.
COVID-19 has led to nearly 192 million tests with many millions more still to come. The increased pressure of processing these samples quickly and accurately fall on laboratories and lab technicians. As the NYT article explains, supply chains are sputtering, labs are racing, and “across the nation, testing teams are grappling with burnout, repetitive-stress injuries and an overwhelming sense of doom.” One of the contributing causes to these physical and mental tolls is the current testing process, which is manual, time-consuming, and “tedious”. Lab technicians, once they receive an individual vial with a sample inside, are responsible for scanning the barcode on the side of that vial to identify it, de-capping — or removing the lids of –each vial, pipetting the sample inside into an assay plate (which contains multiple samples so that the diagnostic (the test that determines whether each sample is positive or negative) can be run simultaneously on all samples in the plate), and recapping of the original clinical sample vial.
Processing 500 tests is more than a full day’s work for a single technician — and, in the last month or so, more than a million new tests are done daily. The resulting steps of de-capping, recapping, removing swabs, and transferring swabs brings both seen and unseen risks to workers, such as repetitive-use injuries and exposure to infectious diseases, like H1N1 or COVID-19. To keep workers as safe as possible, each one is outfitted in full personal protection equipment (PPE) — including gowns, gloves, goggles, and N-95 masks. Despite being a critical part in processing many millions of tests, lab technicians are becoming a “dying breed”: the number of training programs available for those new to the job has decreased while burnout has forced out many of those already in the field.
Rhinostics, which is developing specimen collection kits, addresses some of the shortcomings of the current sample-processing workflow.
In addition to swabs of polypropylene, which allow for increased concentration of the sample and, thus, increased accuracy of the diagnostics compared to current practices, Rhinostics is the first company to develop a one-piece cap-and-swab combo and deploy barcodes on both the side and bottom of its collection vials. Standard vials have separate swabs and caps and barcodes only on their side because the rounded bottom of vials don’t allow for a barcode to be placed — or read — there. However, these features lead to increased work on each lab worker’s part: the technician have to de-cap the vial and remove the swab in addition to picking up each vial individually, reading its side barcode, and returning the vial to its spot on the tray or assay plate.
Rhinostics’ tubes reduce the time that lab technologists have to spend manually de-capping each vial, removing each sample, and scanning each barcode. Technicians can combine the de-capping and swab removal into one step because the top of the swab is the cap of the tube and can utilize the bottom barcodes in order for multiple tubes to be read simultaneously while remaining in the tray (though the barcode on the side also allows vials to be read one-by-one if needed). The company estimates that their kits could accelerate labs’ diagnostic workflow more than 10x, saving 15–18 minutes of processing time per each 96-well assay plate. To put that time-savings in perspective: if one million tests are done per day (a relatively conservative number based on the daily new tests averages in December 2020), 10,417 96-well assay plates would be needed to be processed daily. By saving an average 16.5 minutes of time per processed assay plate, Rhinostics could save days — even months — of time.
Rhinostics’ product has already been registered as an FDA Class I Exempt device, and the company hopes to receive EUA (Emergency Use Authorization) clearance for home use in Q1 2021. Even after the majority of COVID-19 tests have been performed, the company sees a future opportunity for their swabs and kits in other tests, such as those for other respiratory viruses (such as the common flu), bacteria (such as MRSA), and for genetic testing.
The global market for COVID-19 Sample Collection Kits, like the one Rhinostics is offering, is estimated to be $2.4 billion in 2020 and to grow to $3.5 billion by 2029 and the swabs segment of that market is expected to account for 40% of revenue in 2020. Meanwhile the market for swabs alone is expected to reach $4 billion by the end of 2027 (up from $2.34 billion in 2019). We believe that Rhinostics’ novel and needed products will allow it to break into that market while offering cost-savings to labs: since the de-capping, swab removal, and barcode-reading is all automated, labs can save time and money — both on the labor and the necessary concurrent costs, such as for PPE. Beyond financials, though, Rhinostics also reduce the risks of manual error rates, of accidental cross-contamination of samples, and to lab technicians. While Rhinostics’ product isn’t a silver bullet to this crisis, it can offer automation and efficiencies that can help lab technologists from being overworked, strained under 24/7 testing demands, and worried that no one sees the physical and mental risks that they themselves face.
At Avestria Ventures, we look for early-stage women’s health and female-led life science companies with products or technologies that improve healthcare quality and/or access, lower costs, induce clinical or behavioral change, are evidence based, have scalable commercialization plans, and have a sustainable competitive advantage. Know one? Contact us via our website, LinkedIn, or Twitter.