WA company develops new virus tester

01/02/2021 - 15:00

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A Perth startup led by three tech veterans is planning to manufacture and export a new high-speed COVID testing machine after getting backing from the state government.

WA company develops new virus tester
Paul Watt (left) with Tony Fitzgerald, Paul Ostergaard and Dave Kelly and Avicena's prototype. Photo: Supplied

A Perth startup led by three tech veterans is planning to manufacture and export a new high-speed COVID testing machine after getting backing from the state government.

Avicena Systems was established last year to develop a rapid alternative to the current COVID-19 screening system.

The company is chaired by Telethon Kids Institute Director Research Services and Innovation Paul Watt.

His co-founders are tech veterans Tony Fitzgerald and Paul Ostergaard.

The company has signed contracts to supply three machines to government agencies in Hungary and Spain, and Mr Ostergaard said promising discussions were under way with agencies in other countries, including the UK and US.

To support its growth, Avicena is establishing a 500 square metre manufacturing facility at the former Singer sewing machine facility in Coolgardie Street, West Perth.

It has secured $150,000 in funding from the state government to support the fitout and is aiming to raise more from private investors.

“We’re looking to raise a couple of million dollars,” Mr Ostergaard said.

It has also hired robotic manufacturing expert Mark Sheridan to manage the set-up of the new facility.

The latest grant comes after the state government advanced $500,000 to Avicena last October to support development of its technology.

Mr Ostergaard said Avicena retained half that money to work on the robotics.

The other half went to Genomics WA (a partnership between the Telethon Kids Institute, The University of Western Australia and Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research) and the Perron Institute for Neurological and Translational Science to develop the chemistry for the new test.

Avicena has also awarded a $100,000 contract to ASX-listed Norwood Systems to develop the software for its automated lamp testing system (ALTS).

Mr Ostergaard, who is managing director of Norwood, said the contract was negotiated by his fellow directors.

The ALTS is a low-cost screening system that uses molecular assay instruments that are capable of delivering more than 100,000 assay results per day per machine.

Mr Ostergaard said the system could deliver test results in 35 minutes at one-10th the cost of alternatives.

It employed continuous testing rather than batch testing.

It also uses saliva samples straight into the test, with very little pre-processing.

He acknowledged that PCR machines remained the gold standard for virus testing but the ALTS allowed for rapid, low-cost and large-scale viral screening.

Initially designed to test for COVID-19, the technology also supports a range of other detection test kits for pathogens such as dengue fever, tuberculosis and malaria.

“It has a lot of disruptive, longer-term applications,” Mr Ostergaard said.

Potential uses include population-scale background screening in virus outbreak zones and rapid, high-throughput testing for major sporting events and high traffic zones such as airport terminals.

Innovation and ICT Minister Dave Kelly said the state government was committed to backing local innovation with the potential to improve WA’s health, wellbeing and prosperity.

“WA technology has the potential to change the approach to managing a broad range of viruses including COVID-19, and it’s vital we secure its manufacture in the state to create local jobs,” he said.

“Avicena’s technology has the potential to screen large groups of people quickly and play a key role in monitoring and management of COVID-19 and other viruses going forward.”

Health Minister Roger Cook said that, regardless of the imminent rollout of a vaccine, testing would remain a vital part of controlling COVID-19.

“The ability to screen large groups of people very quickly and accurately could be an important part of that future,” he said.

 

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