Biotech startup Uh-Oh Labs wasn’t so much bootstrapped in its early days as it was deadlifted.
Founder and CEO Cameron Ball was bankrolling his enterprise working at a 24 Hour Fitness gym. When money was tight, Ball’s response was: “Okay, I gotta go train one more person so I can buy some reagents.”
A $50,000 grant from Johns Hopkins University initially got Ball off the financial treadmill. And his cash flow and prospects have improved substantially since launching in 2018.
This month the company received limited FDA approval for its molecular COVID-19 rapid test. It recently landed a spot in the newest Y Combinator cohort, plus a $500,000 investment from the prominent Silicon Valley accelerator. Last year it raised $3 million from unnamed angel investors in Seattle and the Bay Area and received $15 million from the National Institutes of Health.
Over the past four years, Uh-Oh’s focus has evolved dramatically as well.
Ball started the company to develop at-home testing for sexually transmitted diseases (the name Uh-Oh was an attempt to bring a little levity to the space).
When COVID hit in 2020, Uh-Oh co-founder and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joshua Torrey wisely suggested a pivot.
Now the startup has a COVID test that’s 96.1% accurate with no false positives and that’s ready for manufacturing. The test is so sensitive that a sample collected by nasal swab needs to contain only 400 copies of the virus for detection.
“This technology is powerful enough that it can be PCR accurate at really low cost,” Ball said.
Like a PCR test — essentially the gold standard for viral diagnostics — the Uh-Oh technology detects the COVID virus’ genetic material, or RNA. But the startup uses what is called RT LAMP technology, which doesn’t require more expensive and complicated PCR machines.
The tests require the purchase of a small, reusable boxlike device that runs the samples and reads the results, which are available within 12-to-40 minutes via an app. That’s paired with single-use test kits that include a sample tube containing reagents, a solution and a nasal swab.
The startup has not set a price for the testing device, but aims to price the single-use kits in the range of commercially available antigen tests that go for $10 to $25.
While customers might balk at purchasing the testing device just for COVID tests, the Uh-Oh team has ideas for their product that extend well beyond the pandemic.
They call it “democratized diagnostics.”
In short, they’re imagining a healthcare version of Bill Gates’ vision of “a computer on every desk,” where every home has an Uh-Oh device that can test for everything from garden variety diseases like flu, strep throat and STDs to other conditions with biomarkers, such as cancers and prenatal tests.
“What if you could just take the lab out of the clinic?” asked Alex Jiao, Uh-Oh’s president and chief business officer.
The team brings a suite of complementary skills and experience to help achieve that goal. Ball and Jiao met while earning Ph.D.s in bioengineering from the University of Washington.
After graduate school, Ball worked at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif.
“We were doing all sorts of crazy diagnostics,” he said. They would design robots to go into the jungle and collect and test mosquitoes for bug-borne diseases like West Nile, Ball said, and experiment with sample collection strategies for the Ebola virus.
Jiao previously founded Seattle’s Silene Biotech, a company that froze stem cells for customers for potential future use in their healthcare. The company was acquired in 2019 by NanoSurface Biomedical.
Torrey, who earned a medical degree and masters of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine, formerly worked at a biotech startup where he met Ball’s wife.
The company has 10 employees and its lab is in Santa Clara, Calif., where Ball is based. Jiao is in Seattle, Torrey is in Pennsylvania.
For now, the Uh-Oh diagnostic tool is approved only for COVID and its use is restricted to “patient care settings,” which basically means healthcare providers and labs. The startup is the 17th venture to secure limited FDA approval for a molecular COVID test. It is preparing to begin manufacturing.
The limitation of the set up is its capacity, running only a single sample at a time. The system is not designed for “batch sampling,” which is combining multiple swabs into a single sample in situations where you need to test many people quickly and positive rates are expected to be low.
But if the company is able to grow as imagined, to a place where people have an Uh-Oh testing device plugged in next to their other smart home features and ready to test all manner of illnesses, the single-sample issue won’t matter.
“Having a molecular test,” Ball said, “that’s going to be actually affordable on the range of like $25 a test is game changing.”