U.S. Tech Startups Step Up to Fight COVID-19

From home health monitoring to sewage analysis, cloud-powered data solutions from startup companies could shape the future.

By Chase Guttman

By Chase Guttman April 30, 2020

In the war against COVID-19, American startups joined the battle armed with innovations that could save lives and shape the future. As some blue-chip corporations do the critical job of mass-producing life-saving ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospitals in need, startups across the U.S. were doing their part to detect the novel coronavirus and halt its spread.

“I think coronavirus is the greatest disruption of our lifetime,” said Dr. Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California.

“We are all in the middle of the greatest social science experiment ever, that none of us volunteered for.”

But many cloud computing-powered startups have stepped up with technologies that monitor patient health, detect sick individuals and track the contagion through city sewers. Some even turned their life-enhancing technologies into tools for saving or preserving life.

Sound Decisions

The sounds of a human lung could hold the key to discovering coronavirus symptoms, according to Bothell, Wash.-based Steth IO. The company retooled its at-home health monitoring devices to help uncover crucial signs of illness.

“Given the situation with COVID-19, which is both unfortunate and unforeseen, we decided to rapidly develop a device that can stay in patients’ homes and can be utilized to listen to lung sounds,” said President and CEO Dr. Mahesh Mulumudi.

“By listening to lung sounds, health care providers can assess whether there’s a shift in the frequency patterns of their patients’ lungs and can make a clinical estimation about whether they need some form of therapy or help them make a clinical determination of a diagnosis.”

Steth IO’s stethoscope-like hardware works with smartphones and can listen for abnormalities in a patient’s lungs from the comfort of their own home. According to Dr. Mulumudi, a frequency shift from 300 to 600 hertz could be a sign of coronavirus-induced pneumonia.

“Patients that test positive for COVID-19 or patients that are being tested and are waiting for results need some form of monitoring at home so we can avoid bringing them into overwhelmed hospitals,” Mulumudi said.

Now, fewer people will have to expose themselves to high-risk environments like clinics. By leveraging data and the cloud, the company’s goal is making telehealth visits more meaningful by giving individuals the tools they need to be examined remotely.

“Data collection happens on secure servers and can be transferred into independent electronic medical records (EMRs), powered by the cloud. So a patient should be able to transmit and a physician should be able to access, and that’s really where the cloud comes into the picture,” Mulumudi said.

A Picture of Health

Sound is one method of detecting the virus. Visuals are another. What if disease could be spotted in a crowd, for instance? Scylla is a new venture whose goal is utilizing thermal imagery to identify feverish individuals hidden amongst the masses.

“The whole thing is about body temperature measurement,” said Ara Ghazaryan, chief technology officer and lead data scientist at Scylla. “If you can measure elevated body temperatures, mainly coming from fever, you can screen potential sick people and limit their movement all around the world. This seems to be one of the important features in this fight – in this war.”

Scylla aims to make its technology more accessible by offering a cheaper solution than its competitors.

“We are as flexible as a startup,” Ghazaryan said. “Other providers require the person to stand in front of the camera for several seconds. This is a bottleneck that normally causes crowds and it’s not good.”

Instead, Scylla’s product integrates software and hardware in order to track people flowing through a busy space.

“Our software augments the accuracy characteristics of a camera from 2 degrees of error to 0.5,” Ghazaryan said. “It’s done through smart targeting. We track every individual in the view of the camera, and with continual measurements from each person we cut out some outliers, do statistical analysis and use some artificial-intelligence (AI) magic to self-calibrate. Eventually, we come up with a number that’s much more precise than the hardware output is. The usage of AI makes this non-contact flow of the crowd screening possible.”

Coupled with facial recognition, Scylla believes this could be an important tool for identifying and even isolating the sick, keeping them out of places where they might infect others.

“We are not virus detectors – and, of course, fever doesn’t always mean coronavirus – but this is about minimizing the impact, and each and every number will count,” Ghazaryan said.

Out of the Gutter

For one startup, the pandemic’s story is best told in stools. That company is BioBot Analytics of Somerville, Mass. Using lessons learned from studying the opioid crisis through waste, it’s searching for answers in the bowels of cities by collecting public health data from sewage samples, insights from which can help isolate the next coronavirus cluster.

COVID-19 coronavirus in USA, name COVID on map of America. World economy hit by corona virus outbreak in US and pandemic.

According to the company, BioBot “combines science with data, analytics and artificial intelligence that, at scale, can make predictions about public health trends, such as whether COVID-19 is likely to spread or decrease in counties across the country.”

Appearing in human stool samples, the coronavirus collects in city sewers. Due to asymptomatic carriers and a lack of testing, cases of the illness are underreported. Therefore, sewage data can more accurately portray the prevalence of the virus within a population.

When public officials have a full understanding of the outbreak’s scope, they can more accurately predict hospital capacity and readiness, according to BoiBot. This allows officials to optimize public health interventions in order to mitigate the spread of the disease. It can help identify early warning signs should the virus reemergence and more effectively evaluate interventions’ success.

Lessons Learned (or Lost)

U.S.-based tech startups are an important part of the massive global ecosystem, which is working together to contain an invisible viral enemy. In order to defeat COVID-19, they must be able to understand it, monitor it and isolate its potential hosts. In other words, more data is needed – and cloud computing is helping collect, analyze and share that data to save lives.

“[Technology] is our lifeline,” Dr. Cole said.

Yet, the question remains: What will happen to these innovations when the storm of disease eventually clears?

“However unfortunate the situation is, I’m really hoping that we take these learnings and apply them for the future,” Dr. Mulumudi said. “When this pandemic passes, how are we going to apply the lessons that we learned? How are we going to take the tech that we developed or improved into the future?”

Whether they help society adapt to COVID-19 or eliminate it, the best new technologies might be ones that allow people to reclaim a sense of safety and security they’ve lost during the pandemic.

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Chase Guttman is a technology writer specializing in drones. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, drone cinematographer, author, lecturer and instructor. His book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, was one of the first written on the topic and received critical acclaim. Find him at chaseguttman.com or @chaseguttman.

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