Update: This story has been changed to reflect that fact that Luminostics is based in San Jose, not Palo Alto as orginally stated.
As Covid-19 began its intractable spread, and much of the world froze in place, Bala Raja decided it was the perfect time to redirect his startup, Luminostics, to address the pandemic.
The CEO and co-founder of the San Jose, CA-based startup and his team have spent four years working on home kits to allow consumers to privately test for infections like Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and the flu using a smartphone attachment and a patented nanoparticle. The company was on track to enter FDA trials with a mid- to late-2021 target for reaching the market. That timeframe, and the original concept, were set aside to address the new urgency of the present.
The goal now: re-engineer its technology to detect Covid-19 and get it into the hands of health care providers as quickly as possible. Raja is betting his company's future on pulling this off. And he's not alone: According to an AP report, more than 70 companies are trying to sell antibody tests with the FDA waiving initial review "as part of its emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak." Another well-known company stepping into this space is Austin-based Everlywell, which announced it was working with the FDA to start selling an at-home test.
With Silicon Valley sheltering in place, Raja and the Luminostics team are still working from their San Jose lab, putting in long hours on an antibody test that they plan to validate and submit to the FDA at the end of April. Companies around them in San Jose have almost all vacated; Raja describes it as "effectively like a mega-quarantine."
"When we realized that Covid wasn't just a bad flu and that it was actually gonna go crazy and affect as many people as it has, we decided that everything we've done could be very quickly repurposed to make two different tests," Raja says. One type of test detects evidence of previous infection from a small blood sample; the other test, Luminostics hopes, will test Covid-19 from a nasal swab.
Luminostics is aiming to have medical professionals be the main customers for its Covid test, reasoning that will be faster than the consumer market and provide the greatest benefit. (The company still plans to get its home-testing product out later this year.)
According to Raja, the current pandemic is a kind of "reckoning" for the technology his company has been developing for the past few years. "We were fine funding-wise," he says, with $6 million from groups like Y Combinator, Khosla Ventures, Lynett Capital, and the National Institutes of Health, which has been contributing to the company's pre-Covid research since 2016.
"We see this as an opportunity to prove our technical mettle while having a positive impact a lot sooner than we could have with our other products," Raja says. "In a way, we're betting the company on this."