Spit Equity

It’s a wonder what can happen in a 53-by-8-foot trailer. University of Illinois mobile labs scattered across the country can process up to 10,000 COVID-19 tests a day, with a turnaround of often under 12 hours. The testing medium? Not nasal swabs, but vials of spittle.

The university has been selling the rapid test to companies, schools, and other organizations around the world. It’s proving to be a fruitful business model, one that wouldn’t have been possible without the work of university researchers in Urbana-Champaign during the early days of the COVID crisis. In the spring of 2020, they started developing a test-and-trace system called Shield that features a saliva-based PCR test and data infrastructure to track results and watch for outbreaks. They had the test ready in six weeks, in time for the return of the university’s 50,000 students in late summer.

That turned out to be just the tip of Shield’s market potential. As the pandemic has raged, so too has the need for rapid testing. U. of I. scientists designed a saliva-based test because supply chain issues made the materials for nasal swab testing hard to obtain. Now research suggests this approach may be more effective in early detection, particularly with the omicron variant.

The Shield test may turn out to be the most significant innovation to emerge from the university since Mosaic, the web browser created by Marc L. Andreessen and Eric J. Bina at its National Center for Supercomputing Applications. When it was released in 1993, Mosaic helped popularize online browsing. Andreessen later made his way to California, where he built the massively successful Netscape Navigator.

This time, though, the university wasn’t so quick to let a potentially groundbreaking product get away. In addition to setting up the nonprofit Shield Illinois to disseminate the test to schools and businesses statewide, the university founded a for-profit company, Shield T3, with headquarters in Chicago and Urbana, to market the test beyond Illinois. Last year, that effort brought in $64 million in revenue for the university, says Bill Jackson, Shield T3’s principal officer and a former high-level executive at Johnson Controls, a multinational company that builds HVAC and fire safety equipment. “It’s a viable business,” adds U. of I. president Timothy L. Killeen.

Shield T3’s origin story is a tale of parallel sprints. In early 2020, Jackson, who also runs the university’s tech incubator Discovery Partners Institute, and a small brigade of other U. of I. leaders were tapped to help the Illinois Department of Public Health ramp up statewide COVID testing even before the university’s saliva- based test existed. As U. of I. chemists, biologists, epidemiologists, physicists, and engineers were racing to build the Shield test-and-trace system, Jackson and university administrators took a 30,000-foot view, deciding that June to splinter off both the nonprofit and the for-profit efforts from the initial mission of ensuring campus safety.

In August 2020, Shield T3 set up its first lab, hiring full-time employees. Jackson says he was soon “on the phone 24/7. I talked to India, must’ve been 15 times. England. New Zealand. Indonesia, Jamaica. All over the place … constantly talking about this thing.” Shield T3 has since inked deals with more than 150 businesses and organizations, including Toyota, Baltimore City Public Schools, the Philippine Red Cross, and the New Zealand company Rako Science. To service its growing roster and to speed turnaround times, it has dispatched six mobile labs to California, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Maine, and set up labs in buildings in Wisconsin and Texas.

Bloom Energy, a green energy company based in San Jose, California, was Shield T3’s first customer, signing on in December 2020. Roughly 70 percent of Bloom’s employees work in manufacturing or field installations and must physically report to work, says CEO KR Sridhar. “We have not lost a single day [of work] to COVID,” says Sridhar, a U. of I. alum. “It’s in no small part due to the rapid testing.” Shield T3 erected a mobile lab in a parking lot at Bloom, and it uses that facility to service several schools and other businesses in the area, too.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Shield test has applications beyond COVID. Saliva testing may eventually be a potent diagnostic weapon for a number of health issues. Jackson says it could be used to screen for respiratory infections such as flu and respiratory syncytial virus “in one fell swoop” and, down the line, to identify oral cancers and concussions.

Unlike Mosaic, the saliva-testing business remains in-house at U. of I., although the intellectual property behind the test has been shared widely with other universities. Yale and Rutgers developed their own saliva tests even before the U. of I. but spun them out to private industry. “The reason the University of Illinois didn’t do that,” Jackson says, “was because it had a social mission as much as an economic mission.”

Private companies, Jackson says, often charge $70 a test or more. Shield T3 charges businesses $30 to $35, while universities and nongovernmental organizations pay $25. “What the leadership of the university didn’t want to happen is that people try to make money off the back of COVID without doing the socially right thing, which was get more testing at a low cost and a high turnaround,” Jackson says.

But is that the most effective approach? Anthony LoSasso, an economist at DePaul University whose research focuses on health and labor economics, wonders. “Could this have much greater reach and greater market influence if it was being handled by a private company that specializes in doing this?” he asks. LoSasso has a prediction for how Shield T3 might play out: “It would not surprise me one iota if, within the next year, we see the University of Illinois sell this entire enterprise to a commercial lab company.”

It’s a scenario that U. of I.’s president hasn’t ruled out. “It might well be spun out,” Killeen says, “[but] we would not want to see it spun out in a way that would turn it into something that’s not about the public good.”

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