Coronavirus (COVID-19)

A small Drexel, Missouri-based company is selling devices to detect coronavirus in the air to public health agencies in China, Korea and the European Union. But CEO Dave Alburty says the U.S. government, which helped fund and owns some of the equipment, doesn’t seem to remember that it exists.

“We’re a little company, and what’s bothered me all these years is that I could see the potential for our tools,” said Alburty. “But I could see preparedness for this slipping and slipping.”

InnovaPrep is gearing up to increase its production capacity by 10 times as the virus spreads. Alburty hopes to sell kits for a little less than $50,000 to clients such as public health agencies, as well as places of concern, such as hospitals and airports. In an indoor space, the testing kits take samples from the air, concentrate them, filter them and send them through a genetic testing device. Results are returned in an hour.

“The device works well at being able to collect the virus,” said Peter Raynor, public health professor at the University of Minnesota, who did independent testing on the main component of the kit. “In our analysis, we were able to detect the RNA in the virus, and with some success, be able to detect whether it was still infectious. The differences (between coronavirus and other viruses) are small enough that we’d expect to be able to detect the RNA of coronavirus.”

In 2001, Alburty was on the research team that developed the airborne anthrax testing system still used by the U.S. Postal Service.

Dave Alburty
Dave Alburty, CEO of InnovaPrep

‘I’ve Been Met With … Silence’

As he watched the coronavirus spread and saw the increase in orders from overseas, he reached out to the US government to remind them of the potential of the technology, which returns an analysis in an hour. “I’ve been met with … silence.”

InnovaPrep, which has 25 employees and about $3 million in annual revenue, has sold hundreds of instruments to test for the airborne coronavirus in February through its overseas distributors to the Chinese and Korean public health agencies and to clients in the European Union, Alburty said. Now, it has a six-week backlog of orders.

Alburty is now packaging the instruments into kits. They consist of concentrating pipette and a lightweight, portable dry filter air sampler.

The Department of Defense already owns some of the technology, he added.

“I’ve contacted the Department of Defense twice, to say, ‘Are you going to deploy those? You should deploy all those,” he said. “I wrote to HHS. We have customers at CDC, and I haven’t heard back from them yet.”

The Centers for Disease Control did not respond to a request for comment. The Department of Defense and HHS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Trump Administration Faulted

As the virus spreads, the Trump Administration has been coming under increasing criticism for its lack of preparedness.

“In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure,” wrote journalist Laurie Garrett in Foreign Policy. “In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S. government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion. If the United States still has a clear chain of command for pandemic response, the White House urgently needs to clarify what it is.”

InnovaPrep, which was founded in 2009, is now putting together a financing package of about $6 million to expand as the coronavirus spreads. Alburty was a fellow at Pipeline Entrepreneurs in 2013. Pipeline is a Midwestern organization that helps connect entrepreneurs with resources that help them scale. Pipeline connected Alburty, whose co-founder is Andy Page, with Joe Hadzima, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who sent me a map of the patents held by the company:

InnovaPrep was also the recipient of SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) funding from the U.S. government.

A long history

Alburty has a long pedigree in engineering and technology. His father worked in the space program in the 1950s and 60s, on the Apollo and Gemini programs, Alburty said. “He was always an influence on me my whole life.”

Alburty worked at Kansas City-based MRI Global from 1990-2005, where he worked on the monitoring system for anthrax after the attacks that killed five people in 2001. “I had been doing similar projects at MRI for other government and industrial clients,” he said. “The junction between technology and engineering sometimes produces innovation.”

But, he’d also always been entrepreneurial, starting when he was a kid, selling golf balls back to the golfers on the course behind his dad’s house. When MRI Global offered early retirement, he took half his pension in cash and with $20,000 established a lab.

When I reached Alburty earlier this afternoon, the two were working over plans at Page’s house.

What’s frustrates him now, Alburty said, is that the virus will spread, killing more people, when the tools to help have existed all along. “We’ve got the tools to help and people don’t know it,” he said.

But if he ramps up production now, he said, InnovaPrep will be able to prevent some people from getting infected with coronavirus within six weeks. And, they’ll be ready for the next one.

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