Cary Startup AtomBioworks Uses Tech To Speed Up COVID-19 Testing

Sherwood Yao, CEO and Co-Founder of AtomBioworks

It’s kind of like a pregnancy test, but for the coronavirus.

AtomBioworks CEO Sherwood Yao says the company plans to develop an at-home diagnostic kit specifically for the coronavirus that delivers an experience that’s similar to women taking a pregnancy test.

In late May, Cary’s AtomBio received $250K in funding from the National Science Foundation to build the first antigen-based COVID-19 diagnostic test with sub-two-minutes result times, compared to the traditional two-to-four hour time frame, and in part by using mobile phones.

“In general,” Yao said, “people view the holy grail of the entire diagnostic field is if we can get an instant test. That would be the best use case.”

Yao—who previously worked at IBM Cloud for Developers and got his MBA at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business—co-founded AtomBio last November with his childhood friend Xing Wang, a biochemist and professor out of the University of Illinois. At first they worked on diagnosing influenza, but quickly pivoted to Covid-19 as it swept the world.

AtomBioworks’ technology tests spikes on the virus, rather than extracting RNA from within, which decreases testing time.

Frank Wang, the CEO of Morrisville-based BioMedomics, is an AtomBio advisor. BioMedomics partnered with BD—a Fortune 500 medical devices company—in late March to launch the first COVID-19 antibody test in the U.S. using blood samples.

This one- to two-minute turnaround of the planned AtomBio product compares to the current fastest test, the Abbott ID Now platform, which clocks in at five minutes for positive results and 13 minutes for negative results. The Abbott platform received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late March and is targeting hospital emergency rooms, urgent-care clinics and doctors’ offices, according to Bloomberg News.

Yao says other molecular tests, like Abbott ID Now, depend on finding matching RNA sequences by first breaking the virus “shell” and extracting the RNA from within. AtomBio, on the other hand, targets the spike protein biomarker on the outside of the virus, so they can save time by directly sensing the outside of the virus.

Bringing computing power to chemistry

One other competitor— Quidel Corporation’s “Sofia 2 SARS Antigen FIA”—has achieved spike protein testing, but Yao says Quidel focuses on using chemistry to build the test while AtomBio combines computer science with chemistry to speed up the process.

“By the time you know the results [of most current tests],” Yao said, “a few hours or days passed. Who knows who you have contacted, and that’s not ideal. The ideal situation would be we give out all these test kits and the kit can be easily used by a normal person, rather than being a trained professional, and they can get the results in minutes. From there, we can do a lot of the next steps to confirm or give some precautionary protections.”

The AtomBio product will use an easy-to-collect sample type, like saliva, and a small, one mL tube. It will give the option of using fluorescent light (and the naked eye) or UV light (with a small instrument connected to a mobile phone) to see the results. Yao says the product will offer faster speeds at a lower cost in a consumer-friendly device.

“We don’t need any fancy instruments,” Yao said, “and that is the key differentiator.”

As the coronavirus situation rapidly changes, Yao said the AtomBio strategy is to “partner with the big guys” in the Triangle like BD and GlaxoSmithKline. AtomBio hopes to license its technology and bring it to market quickly using those bigger companies’ resources.

Yao says AtomBio will then use the money to fully develop their own products, including for conditions well beyond Covid-19. 

“So eventually we want to do lots of at-home test kits,” he said, “and we can deploy that in a lot of point-of-care use cases, so things like small clinics, nursing homes, or even the airport where those people may not have easy access to a central lab.”

Yao says what AtomBio wants to do is create a next-generation platform technology that can empower an unlimited number of diagnostic solutions, from infectious diseases to cancer. He says they want to partner with a lot of companies to create an “ecosystem” that also has the support of the healthcare system so as to not compete with doctors.

“With our test kits,” Yao said, “we’re always trying to democratize this whole testing thing.”

About Elizabeth Moore 38 Articles
Elizabeth Moore tells the stories of the Triangle's tech startups as GrepBeat's summer intern. She is a rising junior at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and Spanish. You can contact Elizabeth on Twitter (@elizltmoore) and LinkedIn.