Those that inspect get respect, which boils down to trust but verify your findings. Over the years, I’ve trusted more than I should, but have learned not to be afraid to question or challenge the quality of a product. In this market, which intimately focuses on data and numbers, many people bring us results that are subpar. At Empowered Diagnostics, we fill our labs with talented engineers and chemists who verify everything. Through a set of rigid testing and validation standards, we’ve been able to produce highly sensitive, effective tests.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Hennessey.
Rick Hennessey is a founder and co-CEO of Empowered Diagnostics. He is an accomplished investor and entrepreneur, who has successfully built businesses in high growth markets for over 25 years. Rick successfully sold his last five companies. Before starting Empowered Diagnostics, Rick was an investor and CEO of Solius, a medical device company. At Empowered Diagnostics, Rick brings his heart and passion for improving access to healthcare to lead the strategic vision and direction for the company, working with leadership and executives to develop and instill the company’s mission and culture. He speaks globally at technology and healthcare conferences and serves on several corporate boards and advisory committees.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m a business builder and entrepreneur at heart. My passion is to build companies that help others. Early in my career, I was working on a number of startups, but I felt like my work was lacking a sense of purpose. This came to a head a few years back when my daughter became ill. Though we were fortunate to be able to afford reliable diagnostic testing to understand what was going on with her body, as we went through the diagnostic process, we were astounded by the high price to access this critical information. I believe that the ability to understand health issues, detect problems early, and process the results should be simple and affordable.
Four years ago, my business partner Brett Parent and I started Empowered Diagnostics to tackle this problem. Our mission is to empower people to learn about their health by providing highly accurate, over-the-counter rapid testing solutions at an affordable price. We initially focused on developing lateral flow test strips for cancer biomarkers, but when the pandemic hit, we quickly pivoted to developing two COVID-19 diagnostic tests.
Our CovClear™ Rapid Antigen test is a lower-cavity nasal swab test that detects active COVID-19 infection in as few as three minutes. It’s intended to help people catch COVID-19 early — often before they have symptoms or become contagious. Our other test is the ImmunoPass Rapid Neutralizing Antibody Test, which is a finger-prick test that shows not only whether you are immune to COVID-19, but also the level of immunity in your body and when you’re most at risk of catching the virus or passing it along to someone else.
Since founding Empowered Diagnostics, it’s been magical to develop and generate results that offer a major and meaningful impact, and I feel like I’ve found my purpose.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When developing the tests, our goal was not only to meet the FDA’s guidelines for performance standards, but also to go above and beyond in providing accurate results. As such, the CovClear rapid test can detect COVID-19 in minutes, two to three days after exposure before a patient becomes contagious. Our extensive trial results show that the test is incredibly sensitive and highly accurate.
Last summer, one of our employees was attending a small, local wedding, and the wedding planner had a cold. We quickly provided her with the CovClear test, and within three minutes, she learned that she had COVID-19. Her husband, who had no symptoms, took a test and also had the virus. They called their doctor, validated the results with a PCR test, and we prevented what could have been a super spreader event early by catching the patients before one had even exhibited symptoms. It was powerful to see how we can make an impact in keeping people safe and healthy.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
The rapid diagnostic tests we’re working on are developed by some of the world’s top scientists. We have developed proprietary manufacturing processes to make more tests at a faster rate and at a much higher sensitivity than anything we are currently seeing on the market. For example, our innovative approach reduces material wastage — we can produce over a million tests per day and only use about 10 percent of the packaging material as compared to current tests on the market.
Furthermore, the CovClear test, which enables people to determine if they have an active coronavirus in their body, is biocontained. In other words, after inserting the nasal swab and test strip into the vial, the container cannot be reopened. This innovative design limits potential spread of the live virus as opposed to many of the current tests which could have live virus sitting in the open as a biohazard. Additionally, our other test, ImmunoPass, is a first-of-its-kind rapid test designed to detect semi-quantitative concentrations of neutralizing antibodies, which determine immunity levels to the virus in your body. Not all antibodies are the same, so if you want to understand how long a vaccine might be working or what level of immunity you may have, you have to look specifically for the neutralizing antibodies which show your cells have neutralized the ability for the disease to penetrate.
We’ve created the ability to manufacture highly sensitive tests on a very large scale. Our technologies offer answers to questions consumers have not previously had access to for an affordable price. Ultimately, testing is the key to ensuring our own health, gaining information and guiding a return to normalcy.
How do you think this might change the world?
Rapid affordable testing is critical to reopening the economy and our return to life as normal. Being able to identify, diagnose and isolate infected individuals will slow the spread of the virus and make it much safer to congregate and reopen schools and businesses. Corporate America should have a strong role in leading the way forward as it has a responsibility to help safely reopen America.
Additionally, access to all kinds of accurate, affordable diagnostic testing is simply not available in many communities around the world. Our overall mission — including and beyond COVID-19 — is to give to people more control over their health by putting diagnostic tests directly into their hands.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?’
I think a potential drawback with our COVID-19 tests is that people will take a test, learn that they’re immune to the virus — whether it’s after becoming vaccinated or because they had the virus — and go back to some semblance of normalcy without thinking through the unintended consequences of their actions. In reality, every individual’s body works differently, and immunity is not permanent. A test is a snapshot in time, and your body can begin to lose immunity, putting yourself and others at risk of catching and spreading the virus. Testing on a frequent basis is critical for understanding your health — and it’s not a “one time test and you have a free pass” deal. That’s why making our high-sensitivity tests affordable has been paramount for us at Empowered Diagnostics.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
For me, the tipping point was actually experiencing first-hand the high cost of healthcare for my child when she was sick. For so long, I was motivated to build incredibly profitable businesses that weren’t necessarily doing more “good” for society. But when you have a child, that mindset changes — you have a new vulnerability. That’s what inspired Empowered Diagnostics to focus on producing affordable, highly sensitive tests.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
Education about immunity, antibodies and the importance of accurate testing is critical. According to Dr. Doug Lake of the Mayo Clinic, “not all antibodies are created equal.” Further, not all diagnostic tests are created equal. If we can educate people about their immunity to COVID-19 through consistent testing and specifically looking for neutralizing antibodies, this will allow people to stop making assumptions about their level of protection and to start making information-based decisions.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
At Empowered Diagnostics, we’re not focused on innovating marketing strategies. Rather, we’re focused on innovating testing standards. Our team, which is made up of healthcare veterans, seasoned entrepreneurs and industry leaders, has made the commitment to help people first. We have left millions of dollars on the table to take the time to build highly effective, affordable rapid tests that truly have the power to support the re-opening of America.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My children, particularly the experience I had with my daughter when she was sick, have helped me recognize the importance of helping someone or something greater than myself.
Additionally, a while back, I invested in a healthcare company and was working with them to identify their target market in order to build the business. As part of this, we conducted walkthrough interviews with patients on-site. After speaking with the first two patients, I fell in love with these people and realized that it’s not about finding the target market; it’s about helping real humans that are sick and need help.All of a sudden, the marketing strategy and target market became a distant secondary to helping others heal. This experience transformed my mindset from being profit-driven to truly focusing on helping people.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am trying to focus on helping people through the work that I do. Right now, it’s about getting highly sensitive, American-made COVID-19 tests that produce a meaningful outcome into the hands of people so they can make informed decisions about their health. In the future, we want to focus on other diseases, like cancer, where accessible diagnostic testing can decrease costs and improve healthcare outcomes.
I’m fortunate to be part of a company that matters, like Empowered Diagnostics. We’ve taken a manufacturing plant and transformed it to be incredibly efficient in high scale production for the good of humanity.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Those that inspect get respect, which boils down to trust but verify your findings. Over the years, I’ve trusted more than I should, but have learned not to be afraid to question or challenge the quality of a product. In this market, which intimately focuses on data and numbers, many people bring us results that are subpar. At Empowered Diagnostics, we fill our labs with talented engineers and chemists who verify everything. Through a set of rigid testing and validation standards, we’ve been able to produce highly sensitive, effective tests.
- Whatever you put your mind to you can accomplish: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that if you really care about something and have integrity behind it, you’ll get it done. You just have to be incredibly focused. I’ve learned that concentration builds success and diversification saves it. When I was younger, I wish that someone told me to be singular in my vision: to do one thing great.
- If you believe in something, it’s okay to think big: When I started to build companies earlier on in my career, I was thinking on a regional level. I was knocking on doors, selling my products and building relationships. I began to realize that there are more people outside of my region that want the product, and as I built and sold businesses, I moved towards thinking on a more global scale, which led me towards where I am now.
- Find a mentor: When I was younger, I never had a mentor or someone with great success to guide me in the right direction. I encourage people to find a mentor that holds the same values as you. A good mentor can help connect you to others in your field, they can provide sage counsel and help guide you — both personally and professionally.
- Do something meaningful, even if it’s small: Early in my career, I built smaller companies. I worked to develop the first mobile caller ID, and I founded one of the first ringtone companies in the world — cool products, but they didn’t leave me feeling fulfilled from the perspective of helping humanity. I suggest finding what is meaningful to you and incorporate some of that in your career. I have more fun knowing that I’m making a difference than when I was just trying to make money. If someone had told me stop for a second and think about how I can help make a difference to humanity, I would’ve started this project earlier.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Access to accurate, affordable diagnostic testing is simply not widely available — both as it relates to COVID-19 and beyond. If I could inspire a movement, it would be to increase global access to highly sensitive, accurate and affordable rapid diagnostic testing. This type of access will empower people with critical information about their health and inform how they interact with others, should they find out they are sick. This can also help drastically improve healthcare outcomes and drive down costs long-term.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is “make no small plans, for they have not the power to stir your blood.” In other words, if you believe in something that is meaningful and makes a difference, be committed to it, make a plan to do it and execute. This lesson has inspired me to take bigger risks and work on projects that offer a major societal impact.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Empowered Diagnostics develops and manufactures highly accurate, second-generation diagnostic tests. To fight COVID-19, we developed two innovative rapid tests: the CovClear Rapid Antigen Test to detect active COVID-19 infection, and the ImmunoPass Neutralizing Antibody Rapid Test to understand COVID-19 immunity. These tests are highly sensitive and specific, and outperform other tests on the market. Further, these tests are easy to use, affordable and can provide results in minutes.
Our mission is to empower people to learn about their health by providing highly-accurate rapid testing solutions at an affordable price — and our COVID-19 antigen and antibody tests are just the beginning for Empowered Diagnostics.