Over the span of a few months, the world has seen the unravelling of a global pandemic which turned the financial market on its head, sent several countries into lockdown and took the lives of many. However, amidst the crisis, we hear stories of unsung heroes who are doing their part to alleviate the dire circumstances and among them are a few start-ups that NUS is proud to call our own. From developing new test kits for the disease, donating viral sample collection devices, to making sure we stay sane being stuck at home, start-ups from NUS Enterprise’s global BLOCK71 and ICE71 networks, Graduate Research Innovation Programme (NUS GRIP), NUS Enterprise @ Singapore Science Park (NE@SSP), THE HANGAR and our NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) community have truly stepped-up in this time of need.
It comes without saying that testing and vaccines are crucial in our fight against the virus. In this first of a three-part series, we take a look at MedTech start-ups that are working on potential treatments, better ways to collect and/or test for the virus, and making test kits more accessible.
A treatment for COVID-19?
With the global death toll exceeding 515,000, many are working tirelessly to arrive at a potential vaccine to COVID-19. In light of the large number of infections and fatalities, it sure is comforting to know that this crisis might soon be over. For immunocompromised patients who are candidates to receive a vaccine, however, NUS spin-off Proteona is working on an alternative treatment. To further develop the treatment, the start-up has diversified its existing supply and has reached out to unconventional suppliers like family doctors worldwide to procure blood samples from patients who were previously diagnosed with COVID-19 but have since recovered. Via collaborations with research teams from the US and Germany, the start-up aims to develop broadly neutralising antibodies against coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2.
Improving the efficiency of the test
Alternative testing methods
As the number of cases of infection remains high, efficient testing at healthcare centres is of vital importance. Enter Biolidics’ COVID-19 test kits which are designed to check for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Biolidics is an NUS spin-off which focuses on the development of cell enrichment systems to address cancer treatment and testing. Doing a pivot to tackle today’s pandemic, the company’s efforts thus far have culminated in its test being approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Through this, these point-of-care kits are now commercially available in the US for healthcare organisations or laboratories.
On a similar trajectory is Acumen Research Laboratories; a former incubatee which is building and marketing molecular diagnostic tests. The start-up’s Acu-Corona ™ 2.0 allows for high-throughput testing with lesser steps to yield more thorough results. Earlier this year, the company partnered with United Global Alliance, an international venture group, to make available these kits to governments globally. To further help, Dr Ong, ARL’s director and chief herself, has recorded explanatory videos to demonstrate the use of the equipment. These videos have been subtitled in Bahasa Indonesia and Spanish. Locally, The Acu-Corona ™ 2.0 has also been granted provisional authorisation by the Health Science Authority, permitting its use in healthcare institutions, medical clinics and clinical laboratories across Singapore.
Safe and effective specimen collection
Tusense, an NUS GRIP MedTech start-up, has created the DewEasy™ series, patented non-invasive cough-based specimen collection devices to test for bacterial and viral infections causing pneumonia. Targeted at lower respiratory infections, all patients must do is place the device at their mouth when they cough, and the device will capture the cough droplets for further lab tests. Currently in clinical trials, this method will be easier to perform and does not cause physical discomfort as compared to existing nasal swab method. Perhaps even simple enough for the collection to be done by the patients in their own home, the idea is for collection to be done remotely with assistance from clinicians over a video call, with test samples safely delivered to the diagnostic labs for processing. This method can reduce physical contact between all parties, significantly reducing the risk of exposure to the virus.
Initially used on cancer patients, SAFER-sample, a creation by BLOCK71 San Francisco incubatee Lucence Diagnostics is a viral sample collection device to provide a more efficient means of testing and monitoring of COVID-19. The kit contains a bottle of stabilisation fluid that will stabilise the collected RNA samples at room temperature for up to a week. This makes it much more convenient for countries where samples must be transported over long distances before reaching the treatment facilities. The SAFER-Sample could be used to explore the possibility of inactivating the virus with hopes of increasing the safety of our front-liners. As if that is not enough, a total of 10,000 kits will be given to the scientific community gratuitously. The kits are currently being used at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases Singapore for further testing.
In addition to these kits, the start-up has also unveiled its very own SARS-CoV-2 RNA RT-PCR clinical testing service, to identify the SARS-CoV-2 RNA virus in carriers. This test has successfully been approved by the Ministry of Health in Singapore as well as the European QCMD (Quality Control of Molecular Diagnostics). With the given green light, this testing service can officially hasten the country’s efforts with COVID-19 diagnosis and monitoring.
Curiox, a bioinstrumentation company and former incubatee, recognises that preparing samples for analysis and treatment is an arduous process and if not done carefully, makes the medical professionals susceptible to catching the virus as well. This is especially so during the centrifugation stage where there is a high likelihood of inhalation of aerosols from the infected sample. To allow for a testing procedure that is safe for the scientists, Curiox has created Laminar Wash TM HT1000 System, bypassing the centrifugation stage entirely. After all, the health and safety of our heroes in lab coats should not come as an afterthought in the scurry to find a vaccine.
Making medical equipment and test kits more accessible
Today, specimen collection is typically done via Nasopharyngeal Swabs inserted into a patient’s nasal cavity. However, to keep up with the exponential increase in demand for these swabs, Structo, a 3D printer solution provider and former incubatee, has allocated 3D printing resources for the mass production of these swabs. The Structo-manufactured swabs are listed under the FDA and the Health Sciences Authority, Singapore, ascertaining their quality. Apart from manufacturing the swabs, Structo has also made available the digital files containing instructions on 3D printing face shields at home or at facilities. These shields cover the wearer’s entire face, including the eyes, and can be worn on top of a face mask. They can be an effective alternative to face masks or simply an added precautionary measure. The instruction files can be downloaded off of Structo’s website.
Regarding test kits, as important as it is to increase their efficiency, their accessibility is equally as key. Addressing this concern is NE@SSP start-up Lumiere32, a B2B Medical Supplies Platform that has started obtaining COVID-19 test kits for donation. These kits will be given to HLL Lifecare Limited, a Government of India Enterprise, and the High Commission of India in Singapore to be then distributed to areas of need. Lumiere32 is also currently looking into donations of Personal Protection Equipment essentials as well. In addition, given the shortage of much needed medical supplies like face masks in Singapore, the start-up has also reached out to international suppliers. Since the pandemic’s onset, Lumiere32 has successfully supplied Singapore with up to three million face masks, 500,000 thermometers and thousands of other needed equipment.
Also looking to increase the accessibility of COVID-19 test kits is Yonah, a start-up established by NOC alumni. Transporting test kits from rural communities to the treatment labs in cities miles away is no easy feat given the poor road infrastructure. If the kits are not transported in time, it will delay the process of treatment. At the pandemic’s current state, we cannot afford to unnecessarily lose precious minutes as a result of inefficiencies. Knowing this, Yonah is designing a drone delivery system to make aerial deliveries of these test-kits from points-of-testing to the laboratories. The drone contains a special WHO-approved Vaccine Carrier Compartment to ensure that the temperature integrity of the collected samples is not compromised. Each drone can make up to 10 flights a day, carrying a maximum of 45 kits per trip, with a delivery time of less than one hour. If that’s not efficiency, then what is?
Read the other articles in this series:
- Part two — NUS start-ups doing good for COVID-19: Supporting the Frontliners
- Part three — NUS start-ups doing good for COVID-19: Making Lives Better
- Part four — NUS start-ups doing good for COVID-19: Helping Individuals and Businesses
For a complete list of the NUS Enterprise and NUS Industry Liaison Office start-ups fighting COVID-19, refer to our website.