Small Company, Big(ger) Impact

January 29, 2020 | 4 min read

Jesse Lehga, Vice President of Operations & Business Development, DRW

In 2002, Diagnostics for the Real World (DRW) began with a lofty but admirable goal: to tackle the world’s most serious infectious diseases through breakthrough point-of-care diagnostics. Led by Dr. Helen Lee of the Diagnostics Development Unit at the University of Cambridge, our mission from day one has been to bring these technologies to resource-limited regions that otherwise lack access to advanced medical care. Throughout the years, we’ve managed to remain small and nimble, focused first and foremost on maintaining the quality and accuracy of our SAMBA diagnostic instruments and test cartridges. After all, when developing critical diagnostic tests for remote areas, the product performance simply cannot be compromised.

The Challenge of Scaling Production

While our products have already impacted the lives of thousands across the world, to reach hundreds of thousands and, one day, millions, we must change the economics and cost of our tests. Although we’ve taken this challenge head on, it turns out that meeting this target is easier said than done. By nature, a nucleic acid test is inherently complex, therefore the best way to lower the cost is to focus on a higher production volume and realize the benefits of economies of scale. Furthermore, we knew DRW needed an affordable way to scale up production quickly and allow for wider distribution of our products to serve the needs of the market.

Enter, Bright Machines. Much like us, Bright Machines is focused on tackling big, important problems. With intelligent software and adaptive robotics, the company is transforming the way physical products get made—making it so that anyone, regardless of size or available resources, can have something made at scale. Bright Machines Microfactories completely change the economics of manufacturing by not requiring expensive hardware to achieve automation, which increases both the agility and flexibility of a manufacturing operation. For a growing company like ours, Bright Machines offers an ideal solution to scale up production without scaling up cost.

The Impact of Automation on Production

We’re thrilled to partner with Bright Machines to automate the assembly of our test cartridges for our SAMBA II diagnostic platform, our most complex point-of-care diagnostics product which currently provides HIV tests for early infant and acute infection diagnosis and therapy monitoring. Menu expansion is also in the pipeline, with tests for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and Chlamydia/Gonorrhea to follow soon. With a Bright Machines Microfactory in deployment, DRW will be well positioned to handle market growth by producing significantly more SAMBA II test cartridges at a faster rate.

Here’s just a glimpse at what we’ll be able to achieve with our microfactory:

  • Decrease our assembly headcount from seven technicians to one to two technicians per unit, allowing us to redeploy those individuals to other critical parts of the production flow and save on labor costs
  • Speed up cartridge assembly time from two minutes to just 20 seconds per unit
  • Most importantly, increase our overall production output by a factor of 10x: from 100,000 units per year to one million units per year

This massive increase in production will allow us to not only hit a new important milestone for our company, but to also dramatically lower the end-user cost of the cartridges for the clinics around the world who rely on our products to serve their patients. Simply put, it will put us on a path to provide millions of patients with affordable access to our tests.

Target metrics aside, we’re incredibly excited about what this means for the future of DRW. It means bringing our advanced diagnostics to more under-served areas of the world and touching even more lives with proper HIV diagnosis and disease management. It means a small company like ours has the potential to make a global impact even bigger than we had ever imagined. Democratizing manufacturing, as it turns out, isn’t just good for the individuals and companies building products, it’s good for the world.

About the Author
Jesse Lehga is the Vice President of Operations & Business Development for Diagnostics for the Real World, where he is closely involved with the production of the SAMBA test cartridges. Prior to joining DRW, Jesse studied Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley. He is passionate about improving lives through the intersection of technology and healthcare.

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