Former Google and Meta executive launches home COVID-19 test

A new medical testing startup called Detect started selling COVID-19 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 like smartphones and virtual reality.

The timing was sadly fortuitous – the launch coincided with an almost unprecedented increase in COVID-19 cases in the United States, driven by the omicron variant. It is almost impossible to find a home test for the virus. Detect’s website shows its tests have run out and notes that “limited quantities” will be available at noon each day.

“During those kind of times of high pressure and high tension, where people really need these tests, we operate just in time – we get the inventory, we put it up for sale, and literally ship it to the door.” , said Barra. The edge. Currently, customers are limited to one test per household, spokesman Anthony Ramos said in an email to The edge. Detect’s multipurpose test platform and a single-use test sell for $ 75. Additional tests cost $ 49 each.

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

Molecular testing is an unusual career hub for someone like Barra, who previously worked on Android product management at Google, with Chinese cellphone maker Xiaomi, and in the virtual reality team at Facebook (now Meta). He said The edge that he started working with Detect founder Jonathan Rothberg while he was still at Meta, which he left in May this year to join Detect full time. Barra says he was interested in leveraging his experiences in electronics and technology products and applying them to consumer-driven health technology. Healthcare products often appear to have been designed a decade or two ago, he says, and are not on par with consumer electronics like smartphones and virtual reality headsets in terms of user experience.

“Part of my impetus to enter the world of health technology, and especially the world of mainstream health, was to try to bring this kind of DNA – no pun intended – and these textbooks. from the world of consumer electronics, ”said Barra. While Detect was trained specifically to create a COVID-19 test, it aims to expand its testing offerings to things like sexually transmitted infections and other respiratory illnesses, according to Barra.

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

This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Detect launched for the purpose of testing COVID-19. Are you planning to spread to other viruses?

The platform we built can be reprogrammed to target any other type of genetic target. We plan to post home tests in a few different spaces. We are building an IST test and a panel breath test that would look for things beyond COVID. We are also considering a sore throat test, which would be helpful in helping parents understand if their child has a sore throat due to bacteria or a virus. And then there are others, which we are not quite ready to tackle yet.

What is this type of test for, especially compared to rapid antigenic tests, which are currently less expensive?

Rapid antigenic tests and rapid molecular tests both have their place in the world, and it is a combination of the two used in the right way that we believe is becoming really powerful as a public health tool. Rapid molecular tests are those that detect the virus earlier than rapid antigenic tests. This is the one you use when you need a really high quality response. It also works effectively as a confirmatory test for rapid antigen testing. Antigen testing can produce false positive results, so if you get a positive result there, confirming it with a molecular test of some sort is usually a good idea.

Right now, your tests are quite expensive and can be prohibitively expensive for many people, especially now when the demand is so high and people have to test frequently. Do you think it could improve in the future?

Our goal for this product is to be able to reduce it at the cost of a rapid antigen test. That’s what we want to be able to achieve, and we think we can do it because our product is simple enough that we can make it cheaper with bulk and more automation. We can certainly do it in 12 months and probably in six months.

How is healthcare different from other fields you’ve worked in, and what have you learned over the past year and a half about these differences?

There are two things in particular that you really need to learn quickly if you are to enter the world of consumer health, outside of all the science. The first is quality. In the world I’m from, it’s basically about quality control – you test a product and make sure it won’t fail, and there are thresholds for how often it can fail. . In the world of healthcare, it’s a whole different ball game. You really need to follow a fairly strict set of quality management guidelines to make sure you pay attention every step of the way in designing and testing a product. Quite frankly, any business in the world would benefit – it just leads you to make 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 partnering with regulators in other parts of the world. It is a humbling experience. These people understand what we build better than anyone and sometimes even better than us because they have seen it in so many companies. Ultimately, it also forces you to create a better product.

Tech companies are clearly increasingly interested in healthcare. Are there things you learned from this experience that you would tell former colleagues at large tech companies to work in this field?

I would probably come back to the importance of being really humble and not really trying to do it all on your own. In Silicon Valley, and especially in big tech companies, there’s a general feeling of “we can do anything” – because we have some of the best people in the world and we have endless investments. But that’s not really enough. You have to really understand the landscape, you have to partner with public health systems, and you have to be humble. You need to build these partnerships early on.

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