Ali discusses his journey from mechanical engineering student, to research scientist, to VP of engineering at GE Aviation. Read more about Q&A: Mohamed Ali, Ph.D. '97, GE Aviation
Alumnus company ramps up production of rapid COVID-19 test
Greg Galvin, M.S. ‘82, Ph.D. ‘84, MBA ‘93
By Syl Kacapyr
With 22,000 pounds of assembly line equipment sitting outside his company headquarters, Greg Galvin, M.S. ‘82, Ph.D. ‘84, MBA ’93, quips that he forgot to factor the global pandemic into his business plans for this year.
Galvin is the founder and CEO of Rheonix, an Ithaca-based biotechnology company that is ramping up production of its fully-automated, same-day test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Since February, Rheonix has grown from 50 to 125 employees and doubled most of its manufacturing equipment. It is now installing an automated assembly line to meet the national demand for rapid testing.
The simple-to-use diagnostic system consists of the Rheonix COVID-19 MDx Assay, a biomolecular analyzer that detects genetic material from a person’s respiratory sample. Up to 24 assays can be processed at once after being loaded into the Encompass MDx workstation, which does not require a technician or advanced knowledge to operate.
Production of the assay and workstation has mostly been at the mercy of a crippled supply chain, according to Galvin, but Rheonix has been meeting as much of the demand as possible ever since the FDA authorized emergency use of their assay in April.
Rheonix’s early entry into the coronavirus testing market came as the company was already seeking FDA approval of a similar assay for rapid testing of sexually transmitted infections. The technology needed to produce a coronavirus test was so similar, Rheonix had a working prototype in February, just three weeks after the CDC published the virus’s genetic sequence. Galvin said it was just a matter of altering the system to detect a different genetic target – a business move that not only made sense financially, but also virtuously.
“The sense of urgency was apparent and the need was personal for everyone at the company,” said Galvin. “But also this ability to develop a product, put it out in our local community and create immediate benefits, I think it really helped motivate people.”
Among the first organizations to receive the test were Cayuga Health in Ithaca and United Health Services in Binghamton, New York. The assays enabled Cayuga Health to open one of the first drive-through testing stations in the state. With the recent installation of additional Rheonix instruments health officials say they can now process around up to 2,000 samples per day while providing same- or next-day results.
When it comes to the accuracy of rapid testing, Rheonix is scoring high marks. Comparative data released by the FDA in September show that of 58 molecular assays compared, Rheonix’s scored the fourth highest in its ability to detect a small amount of viral material in a given sample.
“We were very pleased to see the results,” said Galvin. “We knew our test was very sensitive, but what really surprised me out of that data was how wide the disparity between the different tests actually is. I really didn’t expect the tests to be that different.”
While Rheonix ramps up production of its COVID-19 assay, it will also be seeking FDA approval of a newly developed assay that can target four viruses at once: influenza A, influenza B, respiratory syncytial virus, and COVID-19.
“The physical symptoms of COVID and the flu are very similar, so distinguishing between the two diseases is clinically important because the treatment protocols are completely different for them,” said Galvin.
Amid all the success of Rheonix, Galvin reflected on his time at Cornell and his education’s influence on the company. Unlike Kionix – a manufacturer of microelectromechanical systems sold by Galvin in 2009 – Rheonix is not based on Cornell technology. However, Galvin said that doesn’t mean it’s not a Cornell-inspired company.
“Rheonix is an example of the much, much greater number of startup businesses that are created by Cornellians that don't necessarily use Cornell intellectual property,” said Galvin. “The university is fostering a lot more entrepreneurial activity than just the number of startups that use Cornell technology. Whether it's Cornell intellectual property or a Cornell alum, it's still a Cornell creation.”
Galvin is a former member of the Cornell University Board of Trustees and also serves on the advisory councils for Cornell Engineering and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He is a frequent speaker on campus and has created a graduate fellowship to support engineering students. In 2014, he was named Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year. Galvin is also the proud father of three Cornellians, Thomas ENG’19, Kristen A&S’21 and Andrew ENG’23.