How an Ann Arbor prostate cancer testing startup became one of the state's biggest COVID test labs

This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK

Yashar Niknafs and Arul Chinnaiyan had just finished their first round of fundraising to commercialize an innovative prostate cancer detection test when Michigan's COVID-19 lockdown went into effect. Their company, LynxDx, was born out of the research Niknafs had done while earning his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, where Chinnaiyan had been his advisor. Now they were in business together. The lease for their lab had begun on February 1, 2020. They had four employees, and $1 million in their bank account. 

"We were in an interesting spot because the prostate test and the COVID test — they're technologically almost the same. You're just measuring markers in urine versus saliva," says Niknafs. "At that time, every other news article was about the lack of COVID testing in the country. So we thought, 'Let's see what we can do.'"

Niknafs and Chinnaiyan had a refrigerator, a freezer, and a couple desks in an office. Performing a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19 requires two devices. They had a KingFisher, the machine that extracts RNA, but the second machine they needed was backordered — for six to 12 weeks. 

"At the time it was like, 'It would be cool to do COVID [testing], but we can't. We don't have the instrument. But imagine what we could do if we did,'" Niknafs says. 

And then, miraculously, it arrived two weeks later. The co-founders now faced a different question: were they willing to risk spending their investors' money on commercializing an entirely different test? 

"There was no guarantee that we'd get money back into the business if we spent it," Niknafs says. "We had no platform for billing insurance at that time." 

But the pandemic was surging. 

"There was this feeling of civic duty," Niknafs says. "There was a need for testing, and we were sitting there with the ability to do it." 

The next day they called a recruiting agency, ordered the necessary materials, and dove in. 

They began processing tests last June, but despite headlines that bemoaned a lack of testing facilities, LynxDx received a scant 100 samples a week. 

"We were this mom and pop shop. No one had heard of us," Niknafs says. 

So LynxDx partnered with the Michigan and Washtenaw County health departments, as well as a nursing agency. When they heard of counties in northern Michigan that were in need, they drove their entire team across the state and popped up a drive-through testing site. 

"Then there was a mandate in July that nursing homes had to start testing weekly. And because we had some good relationships with county health departments, we were recommended," Niknafs says. 

Soon LynxDx was processing a couple thousand tests a day. In October, the University of Michigan hired LynxDx to do all of its testing, and local school districts have since followed suit. Today the company operates seven drive-through sites across southeast Michigan, and its staff has grown from four employees to 175. In any given week, LynxDx processes 20,000 to 30,000 tests, making it one of the top testing companies in the state. 

"When we first started, the thought running 100 tests a week was daunting. Now, we took in 3,000 samples yesterday. We're a well-oiled machine. As far as being a clinical lab that can process samples, this is bread and butter for us," Niknafs says.

With COVID-19 testing under its belt, LynxDx is beginning to refocus on its original prostate cancer test. Niknafs hopes to resume commercialization efforts by the end of this summer.

"We don't have a lot of extra bandwidth at this time," cautions Niknafs. "But I absolutely can envision expanding if we can find the right partnership for the right test. We have this whole new world of opportunity because we have a team with a lot of experience. It's made the ceiling a lot higher for us." 

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.

Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications.

Photo courtesy of LynxDx.
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