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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Boston startups scramble to help employers with on-site COVID-19 testing

But they'll have to overcome concerns about costs, and whether it's really going to make workers feel safer.

Let’s talk about your return to the office. Maybe we’re talking late fall, if schools have figured out how to run in-person classes, and your back deck has gotten a little too chilly for long Zoom meetings.

Will your reentry to the workplace involve spitting into a test tube or swabbing your nostrils, to make sure you don’t have an asymptomatic case of COVID-19?

Several startups in Boston are betting that employers will want to implement a regular testing system to ensure that a single case of COVID-19 doesn’t take down the entire company. But there are big questions around cost — individual tests can be $100 or more — and whether employees will feel safer, or be put off by being monitored so closely.

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For now, it seems like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is siding with employers who might want to mandate regular COVID tests: testing for the presence of the virus is fine by them as a prerequisite of entering the office, though testing for antibodies in workers who may have already had COVID is not.

One of the best-positioned local startups is Gingko Bioworks, a Boston company that raised $70 million in funding in May to offer COVID testing to workplaces and schools, under the brand Concentric by Gingko.

“When there’s a pandemic and we’re trying to have an open economy — something that hasn’t happened in a hundred years — there’s going to be a set of new processes that everybody needs to figure out,” says Gingko chief executive Jason Kelly. Kelly contends that large-scale testing of asymptomatic individuals can help control the spread of the virus during the period when vaccines are being developed. “The vaccine is great — it just takes forever,” says Kelly, who earned a doctorate in biological engineering from MIT. Without testing, businesses will be stuck in a cycle of opening and closing facilities as cases of COVID pop up, he says. “It’ll be misery.”

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Gingko has partnered with RUCDR Infinite Biologics, a New Jersey startup spun out of Rutgers University, to analyze saliva samples for presence of the COVID-19 virus. (The test received an authorization for emergency use in May, but has not been through the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process.) Kelly says there’s been about a 24-hour turnaround time, from the point when samples arrive at the lab to relaying results. Currently, samples need to be sent to New Jersey for analysis, but Gingko is developing its own testing approach at its Boston lab, also using saliva samples. It hopes to have that facility online later this summer.

Every business will need to balance the costs of testing with the benefits. Kelly believes widespread adoption would take hold if a test cost between $10 and $20 instead of the current $50 to $100. (The US Senate is currently considering whether to give businesses a tax credit to deploy workplace COVID testing in states where infections are higher than average.)

“How long can people work from home?” Kelly asks. “If it’s going to be like this for two more years, you’ll see people say, ‘Let’s figure out a rotation, or pods of people who work together, and we’ll have testing.’” Even with the current price of testing, he says, there is “substantial demand.” (Kelly is still largely working from home himself. He says that for Gingko employees, getting tested for COVID is voluntary.)

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Meenta is a Boston startup that, before the pandemic, had created a way for scientists to access expensive lab equipment without purchasing it — sort of like a FedEx office, but for running experiments instead of printing documents. Chief executive Gabor Bethlendy says that in March, the company began building a relationship with clinical testing facilities that had available COVID testing capacity. Outside of testing giants such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, he says, it’s a very “fragmented” world.

Companies that sign up for Meenta’s offering get a testing regimen that includes a nurse or phlebotomist on-site to collect samples, and software that lets employees choose a time for their testing. In the first week of testing at a company, Bethlendy says, employees would get both a virus and an antibody test; that enables Meenta to develop a “risk assessment profile” for the company, he explains. In subsequent weeks, “we would start targeted testing of 10 to 20 percent of the population,” just for the virus — not the antibodies. Bethlendy says it costs $197 per test. He says the company has signed up four “major” customers, including a beer distributor, an orange grower, and a cannabis producer.

Boston-based Brio Systems, prepandemic, was focused on workplace testing for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes or hypertension. The company participated in the Techstars Boston entrepreneurship program in 2018, and added a round of funding in mid-March.

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“I tell people that, hopefully, we’re not doing the [COVID testing] business a year from now,” says chief executive Boris Lipchin. “But our intention is to close a gap that was a failing of the federal and state governments.”

Much of the demand Brio is seeing, Lipchin says, is not from the world of white-collar desk jockeys, but from “essential and critical infrastructure, manufacturing, and food processing.” Customers include Lifeway Foods, a dairy producer in Illinois, and Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle maker. On some occasions, Lipchin says, Brio has put into place a testing program in less than 24 hours — “we worked through the night,” he says, and the customer’s production facility was able to stay open. “It turned out that the two people they thought had COVID were the only two people who had it.”

CIC, which operates a network of shared workspaces around the world, is also venturing into COVID-19 testing. Sometime in August, it plans to set up testing tents in Boston and Cambridge to serve the companies that rent space at CIC. Individuals will swab their nostrils to obtain a sample, and the samples will be sent to the Broad Institute in Cambridge for analysis. The venture, dubbed CIC Health, is still so new that the individual running it, David Berlin, said that he was not yet certain of his title.

When it comes to testing, these are the early days for most employers. Many are still getting up to speed on the subject.

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Emily Reichert, the chief executive of Greentown Labs in Somerville, which provides workspace for startups in the energy and sustainability sectors, says that she is under the impression that testing availability remains limited, and is only deployed through hospitals and health care facilities. “If testing became available on a ‘mass’ basis, and if the test was validated by the proper authorities as safe and effective, we would certainly be interested in exploring the possibility of COVID-19 testing for our team as well as for our incubator residents,” Reichert says.

Other companies I reached out to, including Formlabs, Wayfair, Stavvy, and iRobot, say they don’t have COVID-19 testing regimens in place for employees, but some are “exploring options,” in the words of Formlabs chief executive Max Lobovsky.

Ric Fulop, the chief executive of 3D printer company Desktop Metal, says he has spoken to attorneys about deploying COVID-19 testing, and even considered purchasing on-site laboratory equipment. But while there is temperature screening to enter the company’s Burlington facility, Fulop says that he doesn’t envision making virus testing mandatory. “We don’t tell our employees what they can or cannot do with their bodies,” he says.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner