Traverse City News and Events

Northern Michigan Companies Aspire To Global Coronavirus Solutions

By Craig Manning | March 20, 2020

The coronavirus has created a national and international crisis, but a few northern Michigan companies are mobilizing efforts to make a difference even across the globe.

Matt Bulloch is president of Traverse City’s TentCraft, creator of custom tents and signage for major events. Up until about 10 days ago, Bulloch was looking forward to another busy spring and summer. But as the event industry weathered huge cancellations, Bulloch realized it was time for a pivot.

“There's a Chinese proverb that says something to the effect of 'The best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago. The second-best time is now,’” Bulloch says. “And it was really last Wednesday, watching the news and seeing the numbers of cases get up there, that it really struck me how serious this was going to be.”

With hardly any events left on the schedule, Bulloch shifted TentCraft’s manufacturing capacity to a new purpose: producing made-to-order tents for mobile COVID-19 testing. Bulloch had read about other countries, where health systems were developing drive-thru testing centers as a way to expand testing capacity and keep potentially sick patients out of doctors' offices. A drive-thru tent setup allows a patient to stay in their vehicle, roll down the window, give a sample, and then be on their way. Bulloch liked the concept – “The worst thing most of us can do right now is go into a waiting room and infect a bunch of other people,” he says – but saw a flaw in the execution.

“These testing centers all looked chaotic and disorganized,” Bulloch explains. “At TentCraft, I think our ability is to help bring order to the chaos. If there are a bunch of tents in a Walgreens or Walmart parking lot and one of them says 'screening' and another says 'medical personnel only,' that tells everyone where they need to go. Since we do custom-printed tents, we can put that messaging right on the tents.”

Bulloch wasn’t the only local entrepreneur who saw room for improvement in remote COVID-19 testing setups. Russell Schindler, founder and CEO of local startup SampleServe, had a similar epiphany. SampleServe offers a pair of apps intended to streamline the collection, chain-of-custody, and laboratory data matching for environmental samples such as groundwater and drinking water. After hearing about the plan to establish remote COVID-19 testing locations in the parking lots of national chains like Walmart and Walgreens, Schindler wondered if SampleServe could eliminate some of the pain points.

“I started seeing news articles about the first remote sampling setups, and they were using paper and clipboards to collect patient information,” Schindler says. “That method is slow, expensive, and takes a lot of time. In order to do it fast, you have to have a lot of people involved, and the more people you have, the more opportunity there is for confusion and data entry errors.”

With SampleServe, personnel at remote testing locations could feasibly use a mobile app to collect all patient data– such as name, age, symptoms, and possible exposure scenarios. The mobile app would then send this information directly to the laboratory, as well as embed it in a print-out QR code label for the sample bottle. When samples arrive at the laboratory for analysis, lab personnel would use a second SampleServe app to scan the QR codes and automatically link each patient’s data with the corresponding sample.

Schindler says he needs to modify the existing SampleServe apps to suit COVID-19 testing. That process would involve stripping out features and simplifying the app. Schindler estimates the revamp would cost around $300,000 and would require a team of skilled programmers to ensure reliable, glitch-free operation. He’s meeting with government departments and affiliates – including a tech consulting firm that contracts with the CDC and the tech procurement team at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation – in hopes that a government partnership or grant could fund that final step. Today (Friday), he’s submitting SampleServe to the European Union as a possible technological solution.

Schindler is confident that, in the right hands, SampleServe could help save lives.

“Our app could cut the time for each individual screening, sampling, and data management by as much as eighty percent,” he says. “It would reduce the number of people needed [for mobile testing locations], thus minimizing possible spread.”

Where both TentCraft and SampleServe have needed to change course to respond to COVID-19, Spire Health is in the middle of the crisis simply via its product. The company is a market leader in respiratory sensors and monitoring – solutions that enable doctors to monitor patients with conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and congestive heart failure from afar. Based in San Francisco, Spire Health operates a satellite office in Traverse City as part of the HealthSpark program at 20Fathoms. Chief Technology Officer Ben Yule, based locally, says the company has seen the demand for its product skyrocket by 20 times in the past three days alone.

“What our platform is able to do is help keep the highest-risk patients – so patients with chronic respiratory conditions – at home,” Yule says. “Pulmonology clinics right now are on high alert. They do not want their patients coming into the office and risking infection, but they also have to monitor and treat those patients, considering that they are in the highest-risk bracket for the virus. Our platform allows for that.”

Yule adds that Spire Health is looking to streamline remote doctor-patient communication by incorporating new telemedicine functions – such as video calling – into its existing platform.

Photo: Courtesy of Heather Higham

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