By Cheryl de Jong-Lambert and Yvonne Bokhour
Like generations of inventors over time, Hans Fuernkranz, PhD, was driven to innovate by frustration with the status-quo. An engineer and biologist by training, Dr. Fuernkranz was a bioanalytical scientist for a biotechnology company when he had the idea of creating a handheld molecular diagnostic tool that could deliver on-the-spot diagnoses for environmental contagions such as salmonella and a range of antibiotic resistant bacteria, as well as human conditions including upper respiratory infections, bladder infections, and pneumonia.
He brought the idea to the company executives but “could not overcome internal resistance to bringing about the disruption of the company’s very profitable business model, one that needed to report great financial results on a quarterly basis,” he says. “This unwinnable confrontation with the classic ‘innovators’ dilemma’ drove me to co-found my current company, NVS Technologies Inc., to make easy-to-use, very low cost, but highly capable molecular diagnostics at the point of care a global reality.”
Dr. Fuernkranz’s device, a nifty, small, and very inexpensive diagnostic tool, won the HITLAB World Cup 2014, hosted at Columbia University. Following is his story.
Why Reinvent the Wheel?
The NVS Technologies team knew they could design a small plastic chip and use smartphone optics and simple LED lights to create a device that looks like a card-swipe machine used by train conductors, flea-market vendors, restaurant servers, and other retailers who have non-stationary work flows.
“We did not have to concern ourselves with reinventing critical parts that have been developed for smartphones and cars because we knew we could adapt these various mass-produced technologies,” Dr. Fuernkranz explains. “We poured our hearts, souls, and funding into developing a proprietary chemistry that makes it possible to use highly capable and proven chemistry and converted it into a much more robust and inexpensive solution by certain proprietary tweaks.” NVS Technologies had received some $30 million over 3.5 years from the Department of Homeland Security.
In 18 months, the team had realized the chemical solution—one that can confirm the presence of molecular organisms responsible for some of the world’s most widespread and intractable conditions—and assembled the ingenious, 10-pound device.
2014 World Cup Winner, and Beyond
The device couldn’t be easier to use. “Early on, we gave the tool and a one-page instruction sheet to a 7-year-old girl and she was able to run a placebo test perfectly,” Dr. Fuernkranz recalls. The healthcare professional puts 50 microliters of fluid into a crucible the size of a match box. This gets inserted into the top of the device. The user then presses a button that says “Run” and the test is underway. It delivers a diagnosis in 60 minutes or less, compared to up to two or three days using standard technologies and procedures. This is particularly remarkable since the device tests for up to 50 infections with a single sample simultaneously.
“Typically in clinical settings, a healthcare professional sends a sample to a lab—often offsite—for testing and it can take three to five days to get results,” Dr. Fuernkranz says. “That is, if they are fortunate enough to live in an area with access to labs. In the developing world, it can take weeks to acquire test results, by which time a disease may be rampant in a population, or an individual may be gravely ill.”
Developing a low-cost tool that could be used worldwide was one of Dr. Fuernkranz’s personal, driving goals. “Having been involved with pharmaceutical and genomic research I have always been struck by how unnecessarily expensive it all seemed,” he says. With increased production, NVS’s device could cost as little to use as a home pregnancy test.
Participating in the 2014 HITLAB World Cup and the Hospital 2.0 Innovators Challenge gave NVS Technologies critical exposure and networking opportunities. “Being honored at these events, in front of such a diverse audience, gave us important points of distinction in a field that is perceived to be extremely crowded,” he says. “As a result, our traction with potential investors improved almost instantaneously. A number of individuals in the audience began to connect us and we have received a lot of valuable feedback.”
“We have since been able to sign a lucrative licensing agreement with a large venture-capital firm that provided us with much-needed cash and allows us to participate in the commercial success of our technology through royalty payments in the future,” he explains.
With product development and deployment plans now taking shape, what’s next on the horizon for NVS Technologies?
“Worldwide distribution of our product, and a global network that would establish an unprecedented database for the accumulation of ever-increasing information on the occurrence and spread of infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance,” Dr. Fuernkranz says. “It would finally allow us to elucidate geographic, ethnic, and climatic contexts of disease, and track the effectiveness of counter measures anywhere. Such databases should be accessible and searchable by healthcare authorities and academics around the world to better understand the spread of infectious diseases and drug resistance, thereby allowing improved international coordination and adjustment of countermeasures.”