A new medical testing startup called Detect began selling at-home molecular COVID-19 tests through its website last week. The company also announced its CEO — Hugo Barra, a former executive at companies like Meta and Google who previously worked on hardware products like smartphones and virtual reality.
The timing was sadly serendipitous — the launch coincided with a near-unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases in the United States, driven by the omicron variant. It’s nearly impossible to find an at-home test for the virus. Detect’s website shows that its tests are sold out and notes that “limited quantities” will be available at noon each day.
“During this kind of high pressure, high tension period, where people really need these tests, we’re operating just in time — we receive inventory, we put it up for sale and literally ship it out the door,” Barra told The Verge. Right now, customers are limited to one test per household, spokesperson Anthony Ramos said in an email to The Verge. Detect’s multi-use testing platform and one single-use test sells for $75. Additional tests are $49 each.
Detect’s tests look for the virus’s genetic material, like the PCR tests that get sent to laboratories for analysis. The company joins a handful of other groups making similar at-home molecular tests. They’re different from rapid at-home antigen tests, which look for proteins on the surface of the virus (and can be less accurate than molecular tests).
Molecular testing is an unusual career pivot for someone like Barra, who previously worked on Android product management at Google, with Chinese cellphone maker Xiaomi, and on the virtual reality team at Facebook (now Meta). He told The Verge that he started working with Detect founder Jonathan Rothberg while he was still at Meta, which he left in May of this year to join Detect full-time. Barra says he was interested in taking his experiences in electronics and tech products and applying them to consumer-focused health technology. Health products often look and feel like they were designed a decade or two ago, he says, and aren’t on the same level as consumer electronic products like smartphones and virtual reality headsets in terms of their user experience.
“Part of my impetus to come into the health tech world, and specifically the consumer health world, was to try and bring that sort of DNA — no pun intended — and these playbooks from the consumer electronics world,” Barra says. While Detect formed specifically to build a COVID-19 test, it aims to expand its test offerings to things like sexually transmitted infections and other respiratory illnesses, according to Barra.
The Verge talked with Barra about making the transition from consumer tech to health and how Detect plans to grow during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Detect launched with the goal of testing for COVID-19. Are you planning to expand to other viruses?
The platform we built can be reprogrammed to target any other sort of genetic target. We have plans to release home tests in a few different spaces. We’re building an STI test and a respiratory panel test that would look for things beyond just COVID. We’re also looking at a sore throat test, which would be helpful to help parents understand if their child has a sore throat from a bacteria or from a virus. And then there are others, which we aren’t quite ready to go into yet.
What is this type of test useful for, particularly compared with rapid antigen tests, which at this point are cheaper?
Rapid antigen tests and rapid molecular tests both have their place in the world, and it’s a combination of both of them used in the right way that we think really becomes powerful as a public health tool. Rapid molecular tests are ones that can see the virus earlier than rapid antigen tests. It’s the one you use when you need a really high-quality answer. It also works effectively as a confirmatory test for a rapid antigen test. Antigen tests can produce false-positive results, so if you get a positive result there, confirming it with a molecular test of any sort is generally a good idea.
Right now, your tests are pretty expensive and might be cost-prohibitive for many people — especially right now, when demand is so high and people need to test frequently. Is that something you think could improve in the future?
Our goal for this product is to be able to get it down to the price of a rapid antigen test. That’s what we want to be able to get to, and we think we can get there because our product is simple enough that we can make it cheaper with volume and more automation. We can definitely do that inside of 12 months and probably inside of six.
How is healthcare different than other areas you’ve worked in, and what have you learned over the past year and a half about those differences?
There are two things in particular that you really have to learn quickly if you’re going to enter the consumer health world, aside from all the science. The first is quality. In the world I come from, it’s basically quality control — you test a product and make sure it won’t fail, and there are thresholds for how often it can fail. In the healthcare world, that’s a completely different ballgame. You really have to follow a pretty strict set of guidelines of quality management to ensure you’re paying attention to every step of designing and testing a product. Quite honestly, any company in the world would benefit from that — it just leads to you making better products.
The second is regulatory. We’ve built a very healthy and successful partnership with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in the United States, and we’re in the process of building partnerships with regulators in other parts of the world. It’s a humbling experience. These people understand what we’re building better than anyone else and sometimes even better than we do because they’ve seen it across so many companies. At the end of the day, it also forces you to build a better product.
Tech companies are clearly more and more interested in the health space. Are there things that you’ve learned from this experience that you’d tell former colleagues at big tech companies about working in this area?
I probably would come back to the importance of really being humble and really not trying to do everything yourself. In Silicon Valley, and especially the big tech companies, there’s a general sense of “we can do everything” — because we have some of the best people in the world, and we have infinite investment. But that isn’t really enough. You really need to understand the landscape, you have to partner with public health systems, and you have to be humble. You have to build those partnerships from early days.