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Company of the Month: PocDoc

PocDoc – the innovative digital platform developed by digital health diagnostics company, Vital Signs Solutions – is rapidly realising a vision for faster, cheaper self-testing and diagnosis of common diseases.

We spoke to Co-Founder Steve Roest about the company’s impressive growth and ambitious plans.

The need to democratise diagnosis

The inspiration for PocDoc came from a conversation between Steve’s co-founder (and wife) Kiran Roest, and her father. As a health-conscious man in his early 60’s, he had requested a cholesterol check via his GP, and had been refused on the grounds that the GP felt it unnecessary. Kiran, with a background in life sciences and medtech (she gained a PhD in immunology and virology from Imperial College London, and has held senior roles in pharmaceutical companies) felt there was a public health gain to be had from making routine testing such as this more available to the public.

Following conversations with Steve, whose background is in digital technologies, and their third co-founder, Vladimir Gubala, whose expertise is in microfluidics and point-of-care-testing, the perfect team was assembled to form a company. Their vision was that anyone with a smartphone should be able to access a full health assessment for a range of major diseases, with the results being immediately available via an app on the phone.

Lateral flow at scale

Their solution combines lateral flow testing using a fingerprick blood test, with the ability to take a photo of the test via smartphone and upload to the PocDoc app for analysis.

One novel aspect of PocDoc is that they have been able to leverage their experience in both diagnostics and digital technologies, to develop both the hardware and the software for their solution. They have developed their own proprietary lateral flow tests (which require only 15 microlitres of blood), as well as the cloud-based technology that reads the results of both their tests, and other common lateral flow tests.

The solution allows the user to upload a photo of their test, which can be analysed for colour changes to detect markers for disease. Steve says their algorithm – which also automatically corrects for ambient light levels and the device being used – has been able to determine this for particular markers to an accuracy of two decimal places:

“Typically, lateral flow tests have been used really successfully in the past for qualitative ‘yes/no’ results – the likes of pregnancy testing. Where our key innovation is, is in our ability to use them accurately for quantitative results. What was lacking to enable the use of lateral flow tests in this way at scale was the middleware that could analyse and quantify results in real time. This is where our software comes in.”

Rapid growth

Considering the company’s first round of angel investment came in July 2019 and they set up their lab in Cambridge to begin development in early 2020, the journey to where they are now has been made at speed. Initially focused on their first product – a cardiovascular screening test – the team have developed and patented both their proprietary hardware (lateral flow tests) and digital platform. They are on track to receive their CE mark shortly, within 18 months of development work beginning.

“I’m a big believer that opportunity breeds opportunity. You have to opt in and push yourself and push the company to do things which you know are right, even if it’s hard, because doing those things will open up more opportunity,” says Steve.

Adapting to COVID

With that ethos in mind, the team quickly saw an opportunity to prove their worth when COVID-19 hit. With their app perfectly placed to assist population-wide rapid testing for COVID-19, they partnered with an existing lateral flow testing provider, and within six weeks were piloting the first use of app-based COVID-19 testing at an international airport, with departing passengers being issued a digital health certificate in real time. Similarly, they were the first company to provide an app-based COVID-19 testing solution for workplaces in the UK.

They received two Innovate UK awards in 2020 and Steve sees the decision to take on the COVID-19 challenge as a crucial moment for the company:

“Getting involved in COVID-19 testing is a prime example of where being ambitious leads to rewards. We were fully funded for development on our cardiovascular product – we didn’t need to take on COVID-19 – but we did because it was the right thing to do. And it’s ended up being a real inflection point for the company. It was hard work turning the product round as quickly as we did, but when times are toughest, you need to cycle hardest. Ultimately that decision led us to being revenue-generating nine months ahead of plan,” says Steve.

Next moves

The team have just completed the first NHS research study for their cardiovascular screening product – which has concluded that their solution is at least as accurate as the current gold standard point-of-care test used in the NHS. With around 60 million lipid tests going through labs every year, this in itself is set to have a significant impact on the ease, cost and speed of cardiovascular screening, and the team are in discussions with major commercial partners (both NHS and private) to roll it out.

Later this year, they are also set to roll out a testing solution crucial to polio vaccines. In a partnership with global nonprofit PATH, they will be adapting their platform for rapid screening that will aid the safe roll out of vaccines in remote areas at risk of polio outbreaks.

Beyond this, they plan to launch a test for Type 2 diabetes next year, and women’s health and kidney and liver function are also on the radar.

The power of partnership

On the question of the secret to such successful and rapid development, aside from Steve’s belief in pure hard work, he also cites the power of building relationships:

“We’ve been very proactive about reaching out to people we thought could help. That’s included MedCity, the NHS Digital Accelerator, the Health Innovation Network, Innovation Agency North West Coast, as well as a whole network of advisers and a partnership with the University of East Anglia. We’ve gone out and very much sought out the experts in each space who we feel can help us along the way, and we’ve found that building a team of specialists outside of your core team is absolutely critical.”

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