The founder of Vigilant Diagnostics, John Bischof, PhD (also a Professor of Mechanical & Biomedical Engineering at University of Minnesota), was invited earlier this year to give a presentation at the most influential diagnostics conference in the country, the Next Generation DX Summit. The annual event was held August 21-23, 2023, in Washington DC, and is described as “The Must-Attend Conference for Diagnostic Advancements.” The title of John’s talk was “A Breakthrough in Colorimetric Lateral Flow Diagnostics: An LED-Based Handheld Thermal Contrast Reader.” The following is a Q&A with John about his experience at the event.
What was your overall impression of the conference? Was it your first time attending?
Bischof: The conference was a great opportunity to meet some of the key players in the medical diagnostics space. It was an important learning experience and helped inform the opportunity that VigilantDx has in the market. It was the first time for me to attend this meeting, though our CSO, Jim Sackrison, has been to it several times.
How many people attended this year? And how would you describe the breakdown of types of attendees?
Bischof: There were more than 400 people registered for the conference. In terms of attendees, about 10% were from academic institutions. There was good representation across the biotech and healthcare arenas, ranging from early startups to large multinationals. Some of the important federal agencies were also present, as well as experts focused on various functional aspects, such as regulatory, legal, commercialization, and marketing.
How was your talk received? Did any questions following particularly resonate?
Bischof: The presentation I gave on Vigilant technology was very well received. It was one of the more technically heavy talks in the conference, but certainly resonated with key people. The fact that we can reach ELISA and even PCR level sensitivities with a low-cost assay was definitely intriguing.
Who were some of the key people you met at the conference, and why were they important or impressive?
Bischof: Some of the key people I met were those who had a strategic view of the market — for example, those who were analyzing market trends and dynamics, like Prescouter, an innovation consulting firm. Others were associated with some of the strategics where we are looking for partnership opportunities. It was also important to meet people like Andrew Weitz from NIH and learn about programs like RadX, which had $1.5B to support new diagnostic technologies during the pandemic. Finally, it was important to meet some of our peers who are trying to bring new diagnostic technologies to market. It was interesting to hear about the challenges they have faced, even with significant funding.
What were your biggest takeaways from the conference?
Bischof: The biggest takeaway for me was the important trend towards point-of-care (POC) diagnostics. According to Dr. Mikail Boot from Prescouter, this will be a $100B market by 2030, with a growth rate far exceeding centralized testing. At the same time, it is a challenging field, with long investment times to commercialization, and moving targets on price-value-performance. For example, the COVID pandemic helped initiate more than 120 startups in the diagnostic space. With the end of the pandemic, and the money flows that were associated with it, there will a big shakeout. Only the strongest value proposition can be expected to go forward.
A second point is that simplicity and cost are always going to win. For example, there have been startups working on at-home PCR testing. While the technology is amazing, it not clear that there is a market for such a costly device with an assay cost of $20. Similarly, there has been a trend towards multiplexing diagnostic tests, but the reimbursement model is still an open question.
The final point is that I am as optimistic as ever about our proprietary Thermal Contrast Amplification (TCA) technology and enhanced Lateral Flow Assay (LFA) technologies, which Vigilant is actively working to bring to market. We can provide a ton of value using a low-cost platform. We are operating in a high-growth, very large market with favorable long-term trends. In a market like POC diagnostics, we don’t need to outcompete every technology out there, just provide the right mix of speed-sensitivity-cost for some key applications. Speaking with other startups at the conference, it is clear that we all face the same challenges in this space, including the time, investment, and approvals required to be successful.
At the end of the day, it is very clear to me that the prize is well worth the venture that we are on.
Vigilant Diagnostics Value Proposition:
Vigilant’s TCA technology provides inexpensive, sensitive, timely, and quantitative diagnostic results at the Point Of Care. We enable many central-lab equivalent diagnostics for less money, in less time, with comparable results. This enables providers to make more timely and accurate disease diagnoses and treatment decisions.