The June 2024 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Startups Unveil Tech to Fight Coronavirus; the Challenge May Be Getting Enough Engineers

New technologies track the COVID-19 outbreak via sewage sampling, embed antiviral nanoparticles into fabric via ultrasound, and more

4 min read

2019 photo of 3 Biobot Analytics robots in a sewer
This 2019 photo shows three Biobot Analytics robots in a sewer.
Photo: Biobot Analytics/Instagram

Tech companies big and small are pivoting to join the fight against the new coronavirus. Bloom Energy in Sunnyvale, Calif., a fuel cell manufacturer, is repairing and servicing ventilators. British vacuum-cleaner maker Dyson created its own ventilator design and aims to move quickly into large-scale production. Cloud service providers are throwing cycles at the crisis.

The tech world has no shortage of ideas, energy, and even cash. The main bump on the road to building new technology that can address the virus might be a shortage of engineering talent.

Says Matthew Callaghan, founder of Palo Alto startup OneBreath, “We are looking for resources that can help us. We will have to double or triple our software engineering head count. And need folks that understand working with HHS [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency in charge of public health].”

Breath Research founder Nirinjan Yee says his startup is scrambling to find “electrical design engineers, someone who can get us low pricing on a Honeywell sensor, FDA compliance experts, and executive talent” to help that company roll out technology to assist COVID-19 patients.

Both founders were speaking at Plug and Play’s virtual COVID-19 tech demo day last week. The Silicon Valley-based accelerator reached out to its satellite facilities around the world to look for startups in its portfolio that have developed new technology or may be able to refocus existing projects to address the pandemic. (I reported on SOSV’s virtual COVID-19 tech demo day last week.)

Thirteen startups described their efforts during the event. A sampling:

OneBreathe machine - illustration

  • The coronavirus pandemic is taking OneBreath back to its roots, says founder and chief medical officer Callaghan, who is also an associate professor of surgery at Stanford. Several years ago, he worked with other Stanford physicians and engineers to design a ventilator that could be quickly produced and deployed to respond to a pandemic. Then his team licensed that design when he founded OneBreath. Since then, Callaghan reported, OneBreath had changed its focus from pandemic response to building cheap, portable, self-contained ventilators for use in ICUs in the rural global south—a more immediate need. But now, Callaghan says, the company is revisiting its pandemic ventilator plans. “We have been working day and night for the past week to see what our timeline and budget would look like if we were to shift. We think we can have our pandemic device [built] for [US] $4,000 per device, working with our existing manufacturer in Singapore and adding manufacturing in the U.S. We are targeting building 10,000 units in six months, and could likely obtain FDA emergency use authorization within a six-to-nine-month timeline.”

  • Biobot Analytics, a company that had been developing a system to extract public health data, like changes in a region’s opiate use, from sewage arriving at treatment plants, has developed a test for the new coronavirus, says CEO Mariana Matus. The Boston-area company, a spinout of MIT, has started fulfilling requests for free test kits from municipalities. Matus says the data can be used to detect whether the infection rate in a city is growing or declining, and just how fast the change is happening. Biobot’s system is already sampling sewage in Boston, she indicated. “We showed our tests work, and we are detecting and quantifying [the] virus, but we are not ready yet to share our estimates of prevalence; we will first communicate to public health officials and policymakers,” Matus says.

  • Sonovia has created a system that uses ultrasound to embed fabric with nanoparticles. To date, the Israel-based company had been developing antibacterial materials aimed at preventing hospital-acquired infection, and, says Roy Hirsch, chief business officer, had clinically validated this technology. Pivoting to embedding fabrics with antiviral nanoparticles that can prevent coronavirus transmission will be straightforward, he says. The process costs about $1 per kilogram of fabric; a treatment lasts at least 100 hot-water laundry cycles.

  • Mammoth Biosciences, a South San Francisco startup that makes Crispr-based diagnostic and gene editing tools, is developing a “biological search engine” that can find the coronavirus in a biological sample. It uses a protein to search for the virus’s nucleic acids and then uses the acids to generate a visual signal. This test, says Mammoth Biosciences CEO Trevor Martin, is fast, doesn’t require careful sample preparation, and has an accuracy comparable to time-consuming laboratory tests—for a much lower cost.

  •, a company in Israel that has been developing ways of measuring vital signs from live or recorded video, wants to help COVID-19 patients monitor themselves at home or in a hospital, or allow doctors to gather information about vital signs during a telehealth call. CEO David Maman says the company’s technology can, using cameras from a typical smartphone, detect heart rate, heart rate variability, respiration, and oxygen saturation in real time.

  • Bothell, Wash., startup Steth IO had developed software that turns smartphones into stethoscopes, and was working on a system to allow people with chronic conditions like asthma and congestive heart failure monitor their health at home. At the Plug and Play demo day, CEO Mahesh Mulumudi reported that the company in recent weeks pivoted to focus on detecting dangerous fluid buildup in the lungs due to COVID-19. It has developed a small listening device along with an app that detects a critical shift in the fundamental frequency of lung sounds from 300 Hz to 600 Hz, which, Mulumudi says, is a definitive sign of ARDS—acute respiratory distress syndrome. This gadget, Mulumudi says, can  be used to monitor patients at home or in the hospital, without requiring healthcare workers to come in close contact. Steth IO aims to start production of the device this week while it fine-tunes algorithms. The first units will cost $70 to produce, and the price will drop to $30 as production ramps up, Mulumudi says.

  • Also in an effort to diagnose respiratory distress in COVID-19 patients at its earliest stages, San Francisco Bay Area company Breath Research is looking to get its spirometer and app to COVID-19 patients. The technology, initially intended for use by asthma patients, converts inhalations and exhalations into sound waves for analysis. Its use in the coronavirus pandemic, founder Yee says, would enable patients to better monitor their conditions and know when medical care is needed in the short term. Over the longer term, they may contribute data that could be used to train an AI system to predict disease progression.

Plug and Play also announced the formation of a global COVID-19 accelerator, aimed at pushing out technologies to help address the pandemic through innovations in health care, supply chain operations, retail, business operations, and financial system technology. The accelerator will put out a call for applications in early April, quickly select 20 applicants for a three-month program, and showcase developments in August.

The Conversation (0)