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Innovators at the forefront: Fighting COVID-19

Innovation within life sciences has never been more critical. While many of the leading global biopharma companies race to develop a new vaccine to fight COVID-19, numerous promising new products are coming out of the labs of early-stage health and technology companies.

At MATTER, the leading healthcare business incubator in the United States, many of its 200+ startups have pivoted to answer the demand. They are creating new products, modifying tools they already have or offering their solutions for free. Here are several promising early- and mid-stage innovators across four product categories. Because partnerships and collaborations are key to the success of many startups, we include brief facts published by Crunchbase.com, which tracks innovative companies, along with their contact information.

Remote patient monitoring and early alerts

Patients who have been diagnosed with early COVID-19 symptoms are directed to quarantine at home to avoid potentially infecting healthcare workers. What is needed is the ability to provide early identification and intervention with those patients who begin to quickly deteriorate. The following companies each present a unique solution to this growing problem. PhysIQ offers a platform for continuous remote monitoring of patients with COVID-19 symptoms, Clearstep provides an intelligent COVID-19 screener for consumers, and MyndYou’s voice-bot uses an AI-driven passive voice analytics engine to remotely assess risk and manage symptoms.

PhysIQ has made its wearable biosensor product, pinpointIQ™, pandemic-ready. With pinpointIQ™, providers can track and monitor patients continuously, whether they’ve been quarantined or sent home to recover after a hospital stay. The AI-powered analytics can detect meaningful changes in a patient’s underlying condition even before symptoms are manifested.

Its proprietary analytics are FDA-cleared and are currently being used by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine to evaluate advanced technologies for disease outbreak preparedness. PhysIQ’s analytics have the capability to characterize immune response to infection, evaluate novel diagnostic and prognostic tools and investigate the efficacy of investigational drug therapies that may be administered to enrolled participants.

“It is becoming more obvious that we need to deliver COVID-19 care in the home since hospital capacity cannot keep up with the fallout of this devastating virus,” said Gary Conkright, CEO of PhysIQ. “Achieving this will require clinical and physiological insight traditionally not available in an outpatient environment or with periodic spot checks of vitals that appear to be lagging indicators with this virus.”

Given the nature of the continuous data collection within the pinpointIQ™ platform, study clinicians will have rapid access to streaming data and analytics to monitor individuals with confirmed cases or to decide if those who have been exposed should continue to self-isolate at home or require hospitalization.

PhysIQ’s remote monitoring technology was first tested during the Ebola crisis in 2014. The wearable clinical-grade biosensor is the size of large bandage and tracks and uploads continuous data, such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and temperature to the cloud-based analytics engine for processing of the raw vital sign data.

  • Founded: 2013
  • Number of employees: 11-50
  • Founder and CEO: Gary Conkright
  • Contact: [email protected]

Clearstep is a platform that applies “intelligent-symptom checking” to deliver a fully “consumerized” healthcare experience using AI technology.

Clearstep’s COVID-19 Screener is based on guidelines from the CDC, New York Department of Health, King’s College and University of California. What makes its screener different from others? It incorporates underlying symptoms (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, heart disease), making it a more reliable and safer triage tool. The COVID-19 Screener was deployed at a health system in Florida and within days was demonstrating its ability to respond quickly. The screener drew the attention of several national media, including Mashable, TechCrunch and Fox News.

MyndYou’s AI-driven voice bot, MyEleanor, can be used by healthcare providers to monitor and detect coronavirus symptoms and help them deliver personalized care to high-risk patients who may not have access to treatment otherwise.

The voice bot, MyEleanor, calls individuals directly or acts as a hotline, asking a series of questions to assess risk, manage symptoms and provide guidance. Behind the scenes is an AI-driven passive voice analytics engine. Whether through MyEleanor calls or sessions with individual care professionals, each call uses “brain-driven” technology, working in the background to detect subtle changes in health and trigger proactive interventions.

The MyndYou solution was initially designed to help older adults stay independent by keeping up with the daily changes in cognitive and behavioral function. The app informs providers of any anomalies in patients’ functional routines. During the pandemic, the device can be helpful for vulnerable populations in social isolation by providing continued engagement and stimulation.

Remote monitoring of high-risk populations also provides a level of protection for healthcare workers who otherwise might be exposed.

  • Founded: 2016
  • Number of employees: 1-10
  • Founder, CEO: Ruth Poliakine Baruchi
  • Contact: [email protected]

COVID-19 related clinical trials

With the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the deployment of healthcare professionals in academic centers to triage the sudden surge of patients, many clinical trials have come to a halt. There are concerns on the part of both healthcare professionals and patients about potential health risks from scheduled study visits at a clinical site. The clinical research field needs tools and support for remote patient recruitment, virtual research and remote monitoring software. In addition, with COVID-19 disproportionately affecting the Black and Latinx communities, it will be critical that clinical trials are designed with strong minority representation.

Drugviu is a registry of non-White patients and their personal health experiences. Although 40% of Americans are non-white, clinical trials have on average less than 8% minority representation. This means there is not enough data on how medications affect people of color. Drugviu offers an online patient community where people of color can share their medication experiences and side effects. At the same time, it is building a non-White patient registry for clinical trial patient recruitment.

With the devastating impact of COVID-19 among Black and Brown Americans, Drugviu is creating the largest dataset of minorities who have been tested for the coronavirus. This registry is being developed to be a research platform for future studies on the effect of COVID-19 on patients with comorbidities, such as diabetes, hypertension or auto immune diseases. It will also serve as a valuable registry of non-White populations for vaccine studies. 

One outcome of institutional racism within healthcare is a deep distrust of clinical trials by Black Americans. There is a depressing history of abuse and exploitation of Blacks for medical research throughout the slavery and post-slavery years, culminating in the 40-year Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which only ended in 1972.

“One of the underlying root causes for lack of minority participation in clinical trials is trust,” said Kwaku Owusu, co-founder and CEO of Drugviu. “Our unique registry platform hopes to answer this problem.” Owusu also indicated that encouraging minorities to participate in investigational studies requires a different approach than just merely saying the trials must diversify its participants. “That’s the last thing on their minds,” he said. “For those in biopharma or academia, the pitch to participate to these groups should be to give them free access to promising therapies that aren’t yet available.”

  • Launched: 2019
  • Number of employees: 1-10
  • Co-founders: Kwaku Owusu and Melanie Igwe
  • Contact: [email protected]

Curebase solves the problem of recruiting and supporting patients for clinical trials without having to go to a physician’s office. It offers full-service digital CRO capabilities and software for decentralized clinical trials. Home-based clinical trials are more important now because they can reach patients everywhere, are affordable, produce realistic data and prevent the spread of the virus. In response to the pandemic, the startup launched CURE-19 in collaboration with three partner companies to recruit patients for at-home studies into COVID-19. They’re offering to recruit and track trial patients for free as long as the data they collect and monitor become public.

CURE-19 is recruiting patients for the following studies: Exploring how DNA may affect COVID-19 severity and risk, Identifying and monitoring pre-symptomatic COVID-19 patients, Looking for COVID-19 biomarkers in gut microbiome and fecal matter

  • Launched: 2017
  • Number of employees: 1-10
  • Founder and CEO: Thomas Lemberg
  • Contact: [email protected]

We must engage with entrepreneurs as partners to reimagine how we can more effectively prevent and diagnose the disease and support patients who are infected.

Clinical and environmental preventative measure

Controlling and eliminating the coronavirus requires action on multiple fronts. Ondine Biomedical is testing its novel photodisinfection technology to destroy the virus in the nasal and upper airways.

Ondine Biomedical’s novel nasal photodisinfection technology is designed to sterilize the nasal and upper airways. Ondine’s patented light-activated technology platform, called antimicrobial photodisinfection (aPDT), provides rapid destruction of a broad spectrum of pathogens without encouraging antibiotic resistance.

Photodisinfection has been shown to kill many different viruses, including coronaviruses, herpes viruses, hepatitis viruses as well as virtually all pathogenic bacteria. Eliminating or decreasing the viral load in the upper airway may prevent or delay the onset of more acute respiratory infections in patients. Ondine is working to determine whether targeted viral decontamination could provide a benefit to at-risk COVID-19 patients.

“Pre-pandemic, the technology has been used for eight years in Canada to reduce post-surgery infections by close to 80%,” according to Michelle Anscheutz, chief commercial officer. “We are now working with investigators to study the impact of killing the SARS-VoV-2 virus.”

The company is currently applying its technology by disinfecting the noses of seniors at nursing homes and surgical centers and front line workers. Ondine has applied for Expanded Access designation from the FDA for its technology and is awaiting approval. 

  • Founded: 1997
  • Number of employees: 11-50
  • Based in: Vancouver, Canada
  • CEO: Carolyn Cross; CCO: Michelle Anscheutz
  • Contact: [email protected]

Return to work

As states reopen and employees begin to return to work, there is significant concern about the ability of businesses to effectively screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms. What is needed is a scalable platform that is able to automate the screening process and direct possible symptomatic employees to the right healthcare setting.

Dina (formerly known as Prepared Health) is an AI-powered care coordination platform with a full line of products designed to improve visibility and coordination to post-acute and in-home care providers. One of their newest products, Employee Health and Wellness Screening, is a platform that companies can use to screen employees for possible COVID-19 symptoms prior to starting their shift or entering the workplace.

The text-based screening and check-in tools are intuitive and easy to use. Based on response, employees may be directed to a telehealth visit or review self-care resources. HR compliance reporting is activated if an individual is experiencing symptoms or must self-quarantine. The screener can be used in office and industry settings and integrated into nursing homes and other healthcare environments. Dina had its start in hospitals, so it makes sense that the app has a comprehensive remote monitoring system for discharged patients. Dina says its tech is HIPAA compliant.

  • Founded in: 2015
  • Established base: 750 clients
  • Number of employees: 11-50
  • Co-founder and CEO: Ashish Shah

The role for entrepreneurs

The lack of general health system preparedness for an aggressive pandemic such as COVID-19 has laid bare the need for innovation and scalable technology to support healthcare professionals, hospitals and patients for this crisis and the next.

Before COVID-19, many small, early-stage innovators were struggling to be taken seriously by large providers, payers and life science companies. Now at a time when we are in need of fresh ideas and perspectives, we must engage with entrepreneurs as partners to reimagine how we can more effectively prevent and diagnose the disease and support patients who are infected.

A version of this article appeared in the August 2020 issue of Healthcare Sales and Marketing.

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