La Jolla Institute for Immunology is a winner in XPrize rapid COVID-19 testing contest

The XPrize-winning team from the La Jolla Institute for Immunology.
(Jenna Hambrick)

The La Jolla Institute for Immunology is a winner in XPrize’s $6 million rapid COVID-19 testing competition.

The well-known technology contest organizer named five winning teams in the competition on March 16. The others are ChromaCode and Reliable-LFC, both of Carlsbad, Alveo Technologies of Alameda and Mirimus of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Each winner is guaranteed $500,000. They will receive an additional $500,000 over the next few months if they hit milestones for mass-producing their COVID-19 tests.

Moreover, a $50 million venture capital fund called the COVID Apollo Project has pledged to work with the XPrize Foundation and others to bring testing innovations to market. The fund includes life sciences investors such as RA Capital and Bain Capital.

The contest, launched last summer, aimed to spark development of “radically affordable,” accurate COVID testing platforms with turnaround times of no more than 12 hours from sample to result. It attracted about 700 applicants. The field was narrowed to 20 finalists in December.

Winners were chosen by a panel of judges that included public health scientists from academia, as well as physicians, immunologists and nurses.

When the pandemic first emerged, the La Jolla Institute for Immunology developed a saliva-based PCR test that any biolab could run. Although it was designed for internal use to ensure a safe workplace, the institute decided to enter it in the XPrize competition.

A few weeks ago, all the XPrize winners met to learn about one another’s technology. “They had the coolest stuff,” said Suzie Alarcon, the La Jolla Institute’s Next Generation Sequencing Core manager. “And ours, we are just using things that are already around and we sort of brute-forced it into something simpler, easy and cheap.”

But sometimes making existing technology more accessible is how it gets into the market in a meaningful way, she said. She believes saliva collection makes testing easier. Results come back in about 6½ hours, on average. The institute is sharing the recipe for its test at no charge.

“We think our contribution is going to have more impact by just giving it away as much as we can,” Alarcon said. “It would be awesome to get this into schools. They wouldn’t have to pay quite as much because we skip the whole RNA extraction step, which is pretty expensive. And if kids can collect saliva rather than have a swab up their nose, I think they would probably prefer that.”

She will continue to run a lab that’s a global clearinghouse for antibodies that fight COVID-19.

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines gaining momentum, it’s unclear how much demand there will be for large-scale, low-cost COVID tests beyond the many products already on the market. But XPrize officials said the technology developed for the rapid testing competition can be adapted easily to detect future viruses. And testing likely will continue to track COVID mutations, particularly if a variant emerges that’s resistant to vaccines.

XPrize, based in Los Angeles, has put on large-scale contests for years to foster technology breakthroughs. Some of its best-known competitions are the $10 million Ansari XPrize and the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize, both of which sparked private industry to pursue space travel. ◆