Take four years of work, some complicated scientific and medical research, and condense into 25-second nuggets that you will present before judges and a lively crowd as you “do battle” with nine other startups from around the world.
That was the challenge Jeanette Hill, founder and CEO of Austin, TX-based Spot On Sciences, faced at the start of the Get in the Ring pitch competition. Fortunately, her company had a powerful idea: Creating a simple kit almost anyone could use to draw a few drops of blood that could then be safely sent to labs for analysis.
The idea and Spot On Sciences’ work to make it reality was good enough for the company to win Get in the Ring’s North American championship, which the Kauffman Foundation hosted in Kansas City, MO earlier this month. Last Friday, Hill was in Rotterdam in the Netherlands for the world championship. A prize of one million Euros was on the line.
In Europe, Spot On Sciences advanced past the first round but ultimately did not win the top prize.
But Hill says she and her team of ten will continue work on HemaSpot, the small blood collection device the company has developed and is trying to bring to market. So far, the company has received about $2 million in research grants.
Hill spoke with Xconomy on Monday after returning to the U.S. During the interview—which fortunately lasted more than 25 seconds—Hill explained how HemaSpot worked, why there’s a critical need for it, what challenges Spot On Sciences faces for the test to be approved and adopted, and what it’s like seeing a company with a pretty similar idea get all the headlines and a $9 billion valuation from venture capital investors.
“We’re trying to make it very easy to collect a blood sample,” Hill says. “HemaSpot allows you to take a blood sample at home with a finger stick.”
“We sell the device as a kit, which includes a lancet,” she adds. “You just stick your finger and put two drops of blood onto our device. It spreads out on filter paper, and then you immediately close it up and there is a drying agent inside that dries it rapidly.”
The plastic cartridge that protects the sample is only about the size of a credit card when opened and is about one centimeter tall when closed. “Once the sample is dry, it’s stable at room temperature for up to years,” Hill says. The cartridge also is water resistant, has a tamper-proof latch, and is surprisingly durable.
“You can run this over with a truck,” she says.
Ease of use and durability are HemaSpot’s key features because Spot On Sciences wants to make a device that anyone anywhere can use.
“We see there’s a huge need in the market, because it’s very difficult, especially for people who need a diagnostic test, like the sick and the elderly who are homebound or in a remote village in Africa,” she says. “It’s very difficult for them to get a blood sample to get a test done, so what we’ve done is set out to make that very easy. That way we bring access to life-saving tests to everyone.”
HemaSpot provides labs with enough blood to perform multiple tests, and almost any test can be run using HemaSpot, she says.
One surprising thing about dried blood spot testing is that the procedure has been around for more than 50 years. It’s very common to use the method to collect blood samples from newborns by pricking their heels. Agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other researchers are exploring ways to use it for other tests including HIV and Hepatitis.
Hill doesn’t oversell HemaSpot’s potential, but she almost doesn’t have to. Anyone who has had blood drawn knows it can be a little painful for a phlebotomist to draw blood from an arm, especially if it’s difficult to find a vein. It’s also sometimes inconvenient to find a lab and testing can be expensive.
In the U.S., HemaSpot could be a less painful and more convenient way for patients to have their blood drawn. But the greater impact could come in the developing world, where doctors face the challenge of transporting samples in tubes over long distances and making sure the heat or moisture doesn’t ruin the sample.
Hill says a common question that comes up is how Spot On Sciences compares to Theranos, the Palo Alto, CA-based startup valued at $9 billion. Theranos recently entered the spotlight when Forbes reported the company’s 30-year-old founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes is the youngest female billionaire in the U.S.
Both companies are committed to making it easier and cheaper to perform blood tests, but there are substantial differences.
Theranos develops and performs its own blood tests, whereas Spot On Sciences does not. Both companies say they only need a few drops of blood and use finger sticks, but Theranos collects the sample at “wellness centers” it’s creating with partners such as Walgreens and where certified phlebotomists will perform the tests. Hill wants HemaSpot to be simple enough that patients can perform the blood draw at their homes without help.
Theranos also collects blood in small vials, unlike Spot On Sciences’ method of drying it on absorbent paper.
Hill says she is impressed with Theranos and sees the technology as “very complementary” and the company as a potential partner. She also thinks the media attention benefits her company as well.
“I think the technology is great, and it’s great that they’re getting so much attention,” Hill says. “It’s bringing attention to the fact that the way we’re doing blood testing is pretty archaic, and it definitely needs to change. It needs to become more patient-centric and make it much easier to work with people to get the tests done.”
Now that the Get in the Ring competition is over, Hill said her attention will be focused on getting the necessary approvals for HemaSpot. By the end of the year, she expects the European Union will grant approval.
The FDA is another matter. Spot On Sciences is working with agency regulators, and Hill says they consider HemaSpot to be a low-risk test. The issue is they might require individual approval for each type of blood test that can be run using a sample collected with HemaSpot.
“That makes it a little more difficult, that you can’t just get a blanket approval,” Hill says.
Those kinds of complications, she adds, are to be expected.
“As with anything new, especially in the medical field, there’s work that has to be done to get it all validated and ready to go,” Hill says. “It takes a while to get things established, but we have customers in more than 20 countries who are in various stages of testing and incorporating them into their workflow.”
While work continues on HemaSpot, Spot On Sciences is also developing tests for other fluids, such as urine and saliva, and for tissue samples.