A mobile device built by Albuquerque startup RingIR Inc. could soon provide mass screening capability for coronavirus at highly congested settings like airports, with results in seconds.
The National Institutes of Health already financed initial testing on people at the University of New Mexico Hospital and at Emory University in Georgia with promising results. And follow-on funding through NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, or RADx, initiative is in the works to expand testing to more institutions across the country, said RingIR founder, President and CEO Charles Harb.
“The UNMH trial showed we had something potentially groundbreaking,” Harb told the Journal. “So RADx decided to extend its involvement.”
Dr. Justin Baca, a UNMH emergency room physician who worked with RingIR on the NIH-backed trial, said there’s a lot of interest in the scientific community to further test and develop the technology based on initial results.
“In the preliminary trials it looked very promising,” Baca told the Journal. “If it bears out when testing a lot more people in different settings, it could be a game changer for rapid testing in mass settings.”
Harb launched RingIR in Albuquerque in 2016 after nearly a decade of research and development on the technology, which the company calls “molecular fingerprinting” to detect, identify and measure the molecules of nearly any gas in any setting. It’s based on a commercially available optics sensing process known as cavity ringdown spectroscopy, or CRDS, that uses lasers to measure light at the molecular level.
The company further advanced that process using infrared light to color-code targeted molecules for identification, and it built an advanced data processing system to immediately measure and report findings in real time.
Since 2016, the company has won contracts in the U.S. and Australia to apply its technology to detect gases in mining operations, and for anti-explosives detection, said Harb, a quantum optics physicist from Australia.
The company successfully proved its technique through a $4.6 million award from the Australian Defense Department to locate and identify vapors exuded from explosives. RingIR has since won a second Australian defense contract to begin building mobile units that could be used to counter improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
It also proved the technology’s ability to detect silicate dust, which causes black lung, through testing at mines in Australia. That led to a new, $300,000 contract awarded last year by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to build a prototype device for potential use in U.S. mines. RingIR is now building the mine-focused device, which will be tested by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro.
“The Australian study showed the (silicate dust) signatures could be seen spectroscopically,” Hard said. “This new contract allows us to takes the next step forward to actually build a demonstration unit. If all goes well, we’ll work to get the instrument into the real world for testing in mines.”
The company has also worked for three years with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts under a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to place small detectors in tubes for carbon readings in deep ocean settings.
“We’ve built three units for the institute – one unit per year,” Harb said. “We’ll deliver the third unit in June, all to measure methane in the ocean.”
Before the coronavirus broke out last year, the company had begun working as well with Johns Hopkins University in Maryland to apply its technology in research on vaping devices to study the impacts of electronic cigarettes on people’s lungs.
“That got us into initial work with human beings,” Hard said. “Then COVID hit, creating an urgent need for new diagnostic tools.”
Early in the pandemic, NIH created its RADx initiative, funded by the CARES Act, for rapid development of new testing methods for COVID-19.
“The first rounds of RADx funding aimed to get anything out in the real world with emergency authorization to deploy devices,” Harb said. “But many didn’t work and people stopped using them because there were lots of false negatives.”
RingIR entered the RADx program in its second round of funding last summer.
“We suggested looking at human breath, having people breathe into a bag to examine it with spectrometers and get answers in a few seconds,” Harb said. “RADx gave us money to work with UNMH to get samples from people that we analyze with our machine. Very quickly we found we could see signatures that aren’t normal in infected people.”
UNMH collected breath samples from 20 people – five different samples from each person – that RingIR tested from December-February, said Baca, the emergency room physician.
“The first round of testing was for proof of concept to show it’s feasible to collect samples and run them through this new technology,” Baca said. “It was a great collaboration with a local company to rapidly get new technology tested.”
Given the promising initial results, RADx provided more funding in March for independent testing and validation at Emory University that includes people 8 years old and up, Harb said. Those studies are still in the early stages, but like the research at UNMH, it’s showing enough positive outcomes for NIH to grant more funding to continue research at UNMH, and extend it to other sites around the country.
“In this next phase, we’ll build more test units to get them quickly in the field for comprehensive testing,” Harb said. “After that, if all goes well, we’d move to the third phase where we ramp up production for commercial deployment.”
More testing will help better identify the abnormalities the RingIR device is detecting in breath samples of infected individuals.
“It’s a unique signature – a bouquet of several different things,” Harb said. “But it’s not clear yet whether we’ll see a unique signature for every COVID variant, so we’re looking at that as well. More science is needed.”
If the technology’s early success remains consistent through expanded testing, RingIR hopes to start commercial deployment later this year.
“It could be used as a triaging instrument in large venues like airports and other places where you need people to be tested rapidly on a regular basis,” Harb said. “The instrument would screen people to allow those with a normal signature to go straight through, and others (with abnormal results) to get further testing before entering the building.”
RingIR will need a lot more funding to move to commercial production. To date, it’s invested about $8 million to develop its technology.
Local investors are watching closely.
“We’ve been tracking their progress,” said Dorian Rader, managing partner with NMA Ventures in Albuquerque. “Others are working on diagnostics to try to detect COVID in minutes, but RingIR’s device can do it in seconds. It’s phenomenal technology.”
Although it’s focused on COVID-19 now, RingIR believes the technology could be applied for rapid breath diagnosis of other diseases as well, such as diabetes, tuberculosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. If it proves effective, the technology could be the “holy grail” for rapid medical diagnostics, said Tom Brennan, a veteran investor with Arch Venture Partners and a RingIR board member.
“We haven’t invested yet, but we’re excited about it,” Brennan said. “…They’ve built a novel tool that could have a big impact. It has enormous potential.”
RingIR currently employs nine people at the WESST Enterprise Center Downtown, and five more at an office in Australia.
Kevin Robinson-Avila covers technology, energy, venture capital and utilities for the Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.