NU healthcare startups innovate to fight COVID-19 amid new challenges


Courtesy of Nathan Weber/The Garage

The Garage’s 3D printers sit unused this quarter. Resident teams have had to acclimate to working on their startups remotely.

Stephen Council, Reporter

Proper hand-washing has been cited as one of the best ways to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Since 2017, student-founded startup City Health Tech has been developing products that encourage healthy hand-washing methods — and as their work has become increasingly topical, the team has pushed especially hard to test and release new technology.

However, the very crisis the company is hoping to confront keeps getting in the way.

Just as Northwestern healthcare startups adjust to help fight COVID-19, the realities of remote work are making progress difficult. Resources at The Garage, available lab space and in-person teamwork have proven hard to replace as companies pivot in response to the pandemic.

“It’s been brutal,” City Health Tech CEO Ibraheem Alinur said. “It’s really hard. You can tell that the speed of innovation and collaboration have slowed down.”

Alinur’s company will soon release Opal, a device that sits on the countertop by a sink and encourages healthy, 20-second hand-washing with customizable videos.

The McCormick senior said despite the difficulties, it’s been exciting to work on such a ubiquitous, tangible problem. People are stepping up to help, he said, and conversations about funding have been easier as hand-washing gains attention.

City Health Tech is hoping to get 100 devices out to first responders and essential services in the next two months, before it begins supplying to schools and businesses in the fall and then to homes early next year.

But the first deadline will be hard to meet, according to Katherine Riedel, a design engineer and one of City Health Tech’s founding members. The McCormick senior said testing code and circuit boards for the devices has been difficult with the engineering team unable to meet together with their equipment. Progress, she said, stagnates as teammates wait on one another, leading to “delays everywhere.”

“Being terrified to go out and 3D print something — when we need to 3D print so many things — sucks,” Reidel said. “It’s hard to figure out how long something is going to take you if you don’t have the resources you used to.”

Student startup The Caring Medicine is also struggling with the shift to remote operations. Founder Xiao Zhang, a Kellogg MBA candidate, said she’s not sure how to establish a good culture with her new teammates using only virtual tools.

Zhang, who was a resident at The Garage last quarter, brings her experience with Chinese herbal remedies together with her pharmaceutical background for The Caring Medicine, which develops herb-based health powders that can be mixed with water. She said she enjoyed having a working space where making face-to-face connections with other Northwestern entrepreneurs was easy.

“I was very fortunate last quarter just to walk up to any of the other residents and just ask, ‘How would you do this? How would you build a website?’” Zhang said. “Not being able to have that is definitely not the best. We still have our Slack channels and stuff, but it’s quite different.”

At the same time, there are chances for innovation. Even though her startup develops physical products, Zhang said that during the pandemic, the startup is fact-checking coronavirus literature about traditional Chinese medicine for the public. The team is also pushing to launch a virtual consultation platform — trying to help users meet their health needs when they can’t go to their typical appointments.

Stemloop, a biosensing company co-founded by McCormick Prof. Julius Lucks and his postdoctoral fellow Khalid Alam, has pivoted fully — turning from detecting water cleanliness to developing an on-site test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Kellogg MBA candidate Adam Cohen, who runs the business side of Stemloop, said while clean water was catching on as an issue, the pandemic has become paramount. The company could either “sit on the sidelines,” Cohen said, and wait for labs to reopen for their water work, or switch to developing technology that could be used to fight outbreaks. They opted to join the fray.

“It’s been strange to be living in it, to be seeing it and then to be talking about it at work,” Cohen said. “It’s been a lot. But it’s been really exciting, I’ve been getting up at 3 in the morning, pretty much, because I can’t sleep, and I’m excited to try and solve this in any way.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @stephencouncil

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