Spit Matters: Spectrum Solutions co-founder talks about the race to develop the first approved saliva collection device for COVID-19

Bill Phillips started his career in packaging sales. That’s right – not healthcare or any deviation thereof. From rigid packaging (think bottles, pump sprayers, cosmetic, personal care, liquor) to flexible packaging (think boxes, tape, bubble wrap, stretch film), he was determined to be successful and recruited early in his career because he was. He knew he wanted to start his own company but that needed more experience to do so well. He went to work for a manufacturer, learned how to be a distributor, and ultimately focused on the value of being a hybrid of those two things. Now fifteen years later, he is a founding partner and chief operating officer of Spectrum Solutions, a single source for medical device manufacturing, bio sample collection, custom packaging, and global direct-to-donor fulfillment solutions.

When we started the company, we wanted to do it different than everybody else. Before Shark Tank was Shark Tank, we wanted to create a product development company where people could come with ideas, and it was either something that existed already or something that they wanted to bring to market.

Spectrum started out with just two employees (Bill being one!) working out of their homes, growing to eight and almost going out of business in 2012. Cutting back to two again, they started over with a specific focus on hiring people that were smarter, faster, and better in every aspect of the business. With a new perspective and talent driving future strategy, they went from 94 to 750 employees and a 40,000 to 140,000 square foot space in just 100 days, including building out an injection molding facility, a lab to develop and manufacture their preservation solution and a 10,000 square foot clean space to assemble devices.

We understood how to take a concept from brand identity to packaging, product development, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, and retail to the consumer. In 2012, Ancestry came to us to improve their customer experience through their packaging as they were moving quickly into the DNA space. They shared their ideas, and we went to work to redesign their packaging.

Quickly feeling the Ancestry device was inferior to other options already on the market, Bill asked if he could also redesign their saliva collection device. All through 2012 and part of 2013, we designed, engineered, built tooling, and began manufacturing their saliva collection device. About a year after that, he decided to hire a director of medical to see if a similar device would be viable for research universities, clinics, hospitals, through a port preservation of DNA and extraction for diagnostics. Success came but Spectrum had enough on their plate with Ancestry’s business all by itself.

At the end of 2019, Ancestry’s business had started to decline, leaving Spectrum reeling, uncertain of how they were going to get their new product to market with a dwindling sales pipeline. Then, as often been said in 2020, came COVID. The world was panicking over the lack of swabs for testing. We didn’t know how big it would be. Nobody did. We knew it was affecting our business. It had almost virtually stopped – Ancestry.com and 23andMe had virtually come to a stop. We were doing no business, no manufacturing for anybody, and we were at 94 employees at that time wondering what we were going to do next?

Then came the idea.

I asked the team about using the saliva collection device for COVID. No one could find swabs so why not try it? We went through a study with Dr. Brooks at Rutgers University. Through that study, we learned that our device not only worked, but it worked so well it was exponentially better than any other device out there. It compared equally to the nasal pharyngeal swab but had greater benefits.

From there, Bill was in his foundational element – scaling manufacturing and distribution as quickly as possible to try save lives. And they did. From the idea to becoming the first FDA approved saliva collection device took less than 3 months. By the end of March, they had submitted their device to a partner lab to test. After the results came back, they submitted it to the FDA and on April 13th had the very first approved saliva collection device in the world for COVID testing. That really was a turning point. On that day, we wrote purchase orders to buy 11 injection molding machines, hire a contractor to build out our space and worked with our bank to scale up as quickly as possible.

Spectrum immediately began working with large distributors nationally and globally selling directly and with channel partners on a future direct to consumer offerings, expanding their kitting facility to assemble the device and package the product.

We went from making 10,000 to 150,000 devices a day. By the end of 2020, we’ll be near 200,000 a day in our facility and 10 million across the country. Without good people in place that are willing to lean in instead of lean out, we would never have been able to do what we’re doing today.

Planning to hire another 150 critical team members before Thanksgiving, expanding the engineering department and lab development has been no easy feat. Everyone is working long hours, with voluntary overtime. But the priority remains safety, requiring all staff to wear masks and keep group numbers small when outside of offices. Lunchrooms are grab and go and testing is mandatory every Tuesday and Thursday. If someone tests positive, they immediately begin quarantining and contract tracing begins. Moreover, anyone infected must have two negative results before returning to work.

Spectrum also offers testing to any family member, at any time. If a family member tests positive and the employee needs to separate, they pay hotel costs until the appropriate quarantine period is over. These efforts have kept them 100% up and running throughout the pandemic to date – not a single down date in all of 2020.

Before COVID hit, Spectrum Solutions was in the process of submitting their saliva collection device to the FDA for a 510K approval for diagnostics with the extraction of DNA for cancer. Following this approval, the plan was to add viral studies influenza, AIDS, H1N1 and ironically things like COVID. With the COVID collection device approval in parallel, there will be a big announcement for the company before the end of 2020.

Next month we’ll announce that our device can test for COVID and influenza A/B. It’s called a multiplex study and result. You basically get two for one. You get the kit; you spit into it. It goes to the lab.

You’re not left wondering, why do I still feel terrible?

Spectrum Solutions is clearly on the forefront of innovation, today with the first and only approved saliva collection device that is intuitive, non-invasive, and takes only seconds to do. You don’t need a clinician or a skilled nurse to administer the test. It doesn’t require PPE and it inactivates the virus so it can be safely handled and shipped. And it’s recyclable.

The company recently participated in a drive through testing event where previously the group had tested about 1,000 people a day using the nasal pharyngeal swab. With Spectrum Solution’s saliva collection device, they were able to test more than 10,000 that day.

It takes only a couple people to collect tests for thousands, instead of thousands of people to collect for hundreds. Our goal is to make 20 million pieces a month in 2021. We work with a look-forward mindset. We’re not looking at today. Our conversations today are about things we’re doing in July of next year.

Now THAT’S profoundly impacting healthcare.

Bill Phillips

Bill Phillips

Chief Operating Officer, Spectrum Solutions
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