Alum has big impact with COVID testing platform

Caption: Saloni Verma with the Rheonix Encompass workstation

Saloni Verma (M.Eng. 2018) first learned about Rheonix, Inc. through a seminar given by a company employee at the Meinig School while she was pursuing her M.Eng. “I loved the technology the company was working on, and personally reached out to express my interest,” said Verma.

Based in Ithaca, Rheonix is a biotechnology company specializing in rapid, automated and affordable molecular testing. The company is led by founder, CEO, and Cornell alum Dr. Greg Galvin (MS ’82, Ph.D. ’84, MBA ’93).

Shortly after graduating, Verma joined Rheonix as a systems integration engineer, a role in which she began designing automated testing platforms to execute benchtop molecular diagnostic processes. “I work a lot with automated liquid handling systems, microfluidics and building assay requirements for next gen products.” Little did she know this role would lead her to a project to address one of the most challenging problems of our time.

In spring 2020, Verma helped to design and develop the Rheonix COVID-19 assay, which received FDA Emergency Use Authorization for testing in April and is currently being used as an automated testing platform in Central New York, including Ithaca.

Verma described the experience as fast-paced, as the project became a priority very quickly as the disease spread rapidly across the country early this year.

“It was an all-hands-on-deck type of situation,” said Verma, who was involved with optimizing the automated assay to incorporate features such as time reductions, robustness, and reproducibility, all while ensuring the assay maintained its accuracy. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn many skills in a small amount of time!”

The fully automated test on the Rheonix Encompass MDx® workstation enables detection of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, directly from respiratory samples. The test facilitates same-day test results for small and medium-throughput laboratories.

“The experience was exciting for everyone involved. It was also stressful at times with the timeline to get this project off the ground. But, as a team, we were able to resolve hurdles we faced along the way.”

Today, the Rheonix Encompass MDxTM workstation is currently running COVID-19 assays in hospital labs throughout central New York. Most of these labs, said Verma, were previously taking up to a week to deliver COVID-19 test results to their patients, and can now provide same-day turnaround with the Rheonix system.

“Our customers are happy with the performance of the instrument, and some describe it as game-changing in their efforts to control COVID-19 and enable their communities to return to work and school. Our own Cayuga Medical Center continues to add Encompass workstations to its lab, and can currently process nearly 700 tests per day.”

On how the Cornell BME M.Eng. prepared Verma for her role and this project, Verma said, “The professional and stakeholder management experience I gained prepared me with the right interpersonal skills I needed to excel at my current job.”

Jeff Button, Director of Project Services at Rheonix and Verma’s manager, agreed. “Saloni has been a key contributor in both the development of this assay and the deployment to the local communities. Her technical abilities as well as interpersonal skills have allowed us to keep our customers happy and address their concerns and questions on a real-time basis. She has made a real impact and continues to play an important role as Rheonix expands.”

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