“Testing, testing, testing” — one startup’s attempt to help end the pandemic

Northwestern Memorial Hospital is on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. RapidRona aims to help smaller labs shoulder the testing load for hospitals and patients.

Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Northwestern Memorial Hospital is on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. RapidRona aims to help smaller labs shoulder the testing load for hospitals and patients.

Stephen Council, Reporter

As Illinois and other states look to phase in reopenings over the coming weeks and months, one message has been repeated again and again: to end this crisis, we need more testing.

Startups and nonprofits have popped up across America to help bridge the testing gap — and Chicago’s RapidRona has now joined the cause.

The startup, a brainchild of Northwestern alum Alexei Mlodinow (Kellogg ‘16, Feinberg ‘20) and several partners in technology and healthcare, aims to connect COVID-19 test kits to labs with the right machinery to test them. The venture’s president and Mlodinow’s mother, Heather Mlodinow, said RapidRona is “bringing a gig economy” to healthcare and trying to help ease the tragedy of the situation.

“I think the entire world is suffering from the David and Goliath complex, which is: we’re looking at this thing going, ‘Holy cow, how do we take this down?’” she said. “We know inherently the answer is testing, testing, testing.”

Alexei Mlodinow brought medical expertise from his company Surgical Innovation Associates and is working together with Heather, a technology executive, and his brother Nicolai, a marketer. Shamim Dadvar, a Ph.D. student at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet and recent visiting intern at Feinberg, rounds out the four-person founding team.

RapidRona started at the end of February with the idea that the testing wait times in America don’t make sense — while plenty of labs have the capability to perform tests, those labs aren’t being put to their full use, Alexei Mlodinow said.

RapidRona’s mission now is to utilize those labs for rapid, wide-scale testing, either to help existing labs and hospitals with their backlogs or to facilitate at-home tests. The company said it has partnered with labs in Illinois, Colorado and Texas, gaining the capability to run 22,000 total tests a day.

The startup is beginning FDA validations for the at-home tests in two weeks, Nicolai Mlodinow said. He added they don’t need to invent a new design, but the exact combination of items and packaging still has to be approved. The team is aiming for a price point between $100 and $200, a cost which would be covered by most health insurance plans.

The founders compared the at-home test process to Uber, with the patients as riders and the labs as drivers. RapidRona, they said, intends to be a nexus where patients can request tests, have them delivered, swab themselves, get the tests picked up, and then expect results from a nearby contracted lab.

One in five doctors were furloughed or took pay cuts as the crisis shut down non-COVID-19 health operations, according to a survey last month by physician recruitment firm Merritt Hawkins. Heather Mlodinow said she hopes RapidRona can help those clinics and labs by giving them a chance to earn money running contracted tests with equipment they already own.

The team has launched the startup quickly and most members are balancing the work with other full-time tasks. Alexei Mlodinow said the months have been hectic and exhausting, but also energizing.

“You have an ability to be involved in something that could actually help with an ongoing national emergency, and a good group of people behind it to help it move forward — it’s almost a moral obligation to do so,” he said.

Weinberg senior Matthew Urban is part of that “good group.” The pre-med student joined early on, and his volunteer role morphed into an internship. He and the rest of his cohort cold call labs, checking to see if they have the machinery to test for COVID-19 and if they are interested in doing paid testing with RapidRona.

He said the team’s goal is to make 1,000 calls a week, looking to find interested lab managers to connect to RapidRona’s executive team to then grow the system and increase their tests-per-day capability. Urban loves helping people, he said, even if it’s a marginal, individual impact.

“By making these calls, by connecting with the labs, I do feel like I’m making somewhat of a difference,” Urban said. “Even if I can get one extra person tested for coronavirus, that can help end the pandemic.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @stephencouncil

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