New York City may have been hard hit by COVID-19, but the city’s biotech community was ready to respond. Since March, the city’s startups, academics, investors, and local government have risen to the occasion, coming together in an unprecedented collaboration to address the public health crisis.
“Challenges make people think outside the box—quickly and efficiently,” said Dr. Prem Premsrirut, Founder & CEO of Brooklyn-based Mirimus.
Even before COVID-19, New York City’s local biotech industry was experiencing unprecedented growth. In 2016, the City announced a $500M investment in the local industry through LifeSci NYC, an initiative of New York City Economic Development Corporation. In 2019, NYC biotech companies raised more than $1B in venture funding.
Now the city’s biotechs are leading the charge to advance better, faster, and cheaper COVID-19 testing options. As employers eye reopening, and with a viable, easily accessible vaccine many months away, the need for innovative diagnostics for regular, rapid testing at-scale becomes ever more critical.
These five local biotechs are leveraging their interdisciplinary research and industry expertise to advance diagnostic innovations to fight COVID-19.
Launched in May 2020, Kantaro Biosciences, a venture between the Mount Sinai Health System, and RenalytixAI, was created to develop and scale production and distribution of a high-performance test kit for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.
The underlying technology was created by Mount Sinai’s internationally recognized team of virologists and pathologists for an emergency convalescent plasma therapy program. It has been tested on over 40,000 patients. In a comparison of EUA tests published by the FDA, the test had a PPV of 100 percent, and an NPV of 99.6 percent. That technology received an FDA EUA in April 2020.
Kantaro’s kit, currently in development, is designed for use in any lab, without the need for proprietary equipment. The test will deliver valuable information regarding the level of potentially neutralizing antibodies in previously infected individuals, information expected to be critical to the development of vaccines and therapeutics, as well as assessment of workplace personal protection programs and population vaccination programs.
Kantaro plans to seek EUA for its kit with the goal of supporting 10M patient tests per month by July 2020.
March was a warp-speed month for Craig Rouskey, the CEO of renegade.bio. Together with his co-founders Dr. Gabriel Paulino, Julia Russotti, and Salu Robeiro, he invented a faster, cheaper COVID-19 testing process, incorporated their business, and established a bi-coastal presence in NYC and San Francisco. Rouskey and Dr. Paulino are alum of IndieBio, the life sciences accelerator that recently announced an NYC expansion earlier this year.
Renegade has invented a more efficient testing process that streamlines the traditional RT-PCR methods into a single-step reaction that is 70 percent cheaper and takes half the time.
Incorporated as a public-benefit corporation, Renegade is committed to offering their improved testing mechanism to support local community health. A queer-owned business, Renegade is supporting local NYC employees, including those at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute, to provide testing services and support return-to-work protocol development.
When COVID-19 hit NYC, Mirimus President & CEO Dr. Premsrirut turned to her neighbor, SUNY Downstate, to see how her company could help. In the weeks since, Dr. Premsrirut and her team have pivoted away from their original mandate of animal model engineering to lead up a multipronged testing and research effort in partnership with SUNY clinicians, philanthropy, and industry, including other Brooklyn biotech startups at the SUNY Downstate Incubator.
Mirimus is deploying mobile units in the Brooklyn community to offer free testing at community centers. The company and community partners are piloting a local return-to-work protocol that uses sample pooling to decrease testing costs. Mirimus scientists are also leading research into the “cytokine storm” response to COVID-19.
Katena was founded by Drs. Server Ertem and Rainer Metzger to revolutionize diagnostic testing. Originally focused on oncology, Ertem pivoted towards COVID-19 in March in collaboration with Dr. Rebecca Brachman, another Runway Fellow at the Jacobs Institute at Cornell Tech.
They quickly realized routine, frequent testing could prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and enable economic recovery—but only if billions of accurate, inexpensive, and rapid point-of-care tests were available. “It’s both a science and manufacturing problem,” says Dr. Ertem.
Katena is trying to address both. Katena is using proprietary antibody technology to detect active infections and immunity to SARS-CoV-2. In parallel, they are building a manufacturing platform to locally produce point-of-care tests at scale. The platform pairs high-capacity manufacturing with precision printing using biological “inks”—achieving lab-quality point-of-care tests. The platform can also scale manufacturing of third-party tests and be adapted for diseases beyond COVID-19, providing needed flexibility to respond to future public health crises.
Biotia is developing a next-generation sequencing-based test for COVID-19. The test will characterize genetic variance across the whole viral genome, generating valuable insights for patients and researchers.
Biotia is a spinout from the Jacobs Institute Runway Startup Program at Cornell Tech. According to CEO Dr. Niamh O’Hara, the company has “one foot in life sciences and [another] in health tech,” a reflection of the NYC biotech community’s interdisciplinary nature.
Her company’s growth has been accelerated—not stymied—by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. O’Hara co-founded the company at Cornell Tech while working out of a scrappy community biology lab in 2016, when lab space was scarce in the city. Recently, Biotia has acquired key sequencing equipment to expand its testing capacity and was awarded a CLIA lab certification for its space at BioBAT in Brooklyn.