Meet The Founders Of The $2.7 Million Startup Behind The New Covid Breathalyzer

When the first wave of states started to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in the 2010s, Tim Wing and John Redmond envisioned a cannabis breathalyzer that could analyze samples in minutes without sending them out to a lab, similar to the ones police use to check for drunk drivers. Bootstrapped by $2.7 million cobbled together from family, friends and a handful of angel investors, the pair had the vision but lacked the chemistry credentials. To fill that skill gap, they teamed up with Guido Verbeck, a chemistry professor at the University of North Texas, to develop what Wing calls a “chemistry lab in a box.”

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, CEO Wing, 49, and president Redmond, 51, cofounders of Frisco, Texas-based InspectIR, pivoted from cannabis to Covid. Two months later they started a clinical trial, and on Thursday, the hardware and software of that portable chemistry lab – the size of a 40-lb. carry-on suitcase – received the first FDA emergency-use authorization for a breathalyzer device to detect Covid-19.

The hours since the FDA’s authorization have been a whirlwind for the duo, who first met in 2008 when they were paired together at a Texas golf tournament, where the two Midwestern transplants immediately hit it off. Wing had spent the past two decades as a sales and marketing entrepreneur starting in the early days of the internet, while Redmond has worked in human capital consulting, mainly talent acquisition and diversity, in the technology space. After their first venture, an imaging company focused on touchless temperature measurement from a distance, didn’t pan out, they launched InspectIR in 2017. “We’ve been bootstrapping and fighting like hell,” Wing told Forbes.

Their device relies on an existing technology, the miniaturized mass spectrometer. When a person breathes out, they exhale a cocktail of organic compounds, including oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen.The spectrometer breaks apart the molecules of organic compounds and sorts them by size. “With viral infections, we know that the body creates chemistry, or off-gas, based on its response to fighting the virus inside our bodies at the cellular level,” Redmond says.

This means the breath of a person infected with Covid-19 is going to break down differently than the breath of someone who isn’t infected. The device identifies a specific “signature,” a mix of certain compounds that the SARS-CoV-2 virus generates in an exhaled breath. The exact signature is proprietary, Redmond says, but what the device is searching for is a specific mix of aldehydes and ketones. While the mass spectrometer isn’t new, Wing, Redmond and Verbeck have patented the process by which the breath is collected, known as the pre-concentrator stage.

The turnaround time for a result is around three minutes and the machine can average about 20 tests an hour.

The InspectIR portable device won’t be available in stores anytime soon. The business plan is what Wing calls “testing as a service.” The company will license the device to healthcare facilities, employers, events venues and any place where a large number of people need to be screened for Covid in a short amount of time. In order to take the test, a person blows into a straw on the side of the device. The turnaround time for a result is around three minutes and the machine can average about 20 tests an hour. Plus, a quick exhalation is a lot more comfortable than a swab up the nose.

Right now, InspectIR only employs five people directly, not including its relationship with the University of North Texas and researchers there. The devices are currently manufactured through a partnership with Pfeiffer Vacuum, at a facility in Carmel, Indiana, and the company expects production to be around 100 units per week, which will ramp up as sales begin. Pricing is also still being worked out, but Redmond says it will likely be comparable to the rapid antigen tests currently on the market, which retail for around $10-12 a test.

The main benefit for consumers are twofold: one, there’s no nose swab involved. Two, the tests were also found to be highly accurate. Results from a study of more than 2,400 people submitted to the FDA found the test correctly identified positive Covid-19 results 91.2% of the time and negative results 99.3%. “The FDA continues to support the development of novel Covid-19 tests with the goal of advancing technologies that can help address the current pandemic and better position the U.S. for the next public health emergency,” Jeff Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a statement following the authorization.

Like other rapid Covid tests, any positive result would need to be confirmed with a PCR test. “We’re at the front of the line,” Redmond says. “If you get a negative result, you’re good, keep going. If you get a presumptive positive, you’ve got another test to do.”

Wing and Redmond will next focus on answering the hundreds of emails they’ve received since the FDA authorization, signing on customers and scaling up production. Now that the device has been validated for Covid-19, InspectIR plans to run studies for other respiratory diseases and will eventually circle back to the original-use cases.

“This has opened up a whole world on the medical device side,” Redmond says. “Because one of the challenges when we talk to people, almost reflexively, they ask, ‘Is it FDA authorized?’ Well, now the answer is yes.”

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