How Avellino Labs is chasing rainbows to reimagine a brighter future

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As the country begins to rebuild itself in the midst of a harrowing year, companies are doing their part to look inward and create a better future. For the past month, Brex has been inspiring hope and big dreams in the Bay Area through our #RainbowHunt billboard campaign. Using our own city-wide ‘windows,’ we’ve covered the San Francisco streets with children’s rainbow drawings to encourage founders—and the community—to keep chasing their dreams.

But while we’ve been helping to bring light to the streets, our partners and customers have been bringing light to the world by chasing their own rainbows behind the scenes.

An innovative spirit

Prior to COVID-19, Avellino Labs provided ocular genetic testing for corneal diseases. But in early January 2020, that abruptly changed when Chief Laboratory Officer Connie Chao-Shern heard of the coronavirus outbreak in China and then in Korea. Concerned about her colleagues’ well-being in the midst of government test shortages, she immediately mobilized the company to develop a test for Avellino’s employees in the affected regions. 

She had no idea how critical that pivot would become for the rest of the world.

Reaching out to the CDC to obtain the genetic sequence for the virus, Dr. Chao-Shern quickly recognized a problem with one of the sites on the genetic code. “I studied the virus and referenced the CDC, who didn’t have a complete picture yet,” says Dr. Chao-Shern. “I started designing and testing, and found that what the CDC had recommended didn’t really work for us.” Only able to verify two of the three CDC-recommended genetic targets of the coronavirus, she pressed on anyway. Less than six weeks later, Dr. Chao-Shern and her team had validated the sequence and developed a test. The CDC would later modify its recommendation to reflect her findings. 

As the virus spiraled and exposure reached U.S. shores, Avellino management turned the company on a dime and built an entire supply chain centered around their coronavirus test. “We already had the test available, and confirmed with our international staff that it was working,” says Dr. Chao-Shern. “So we figured, ‘Why not distribute it so the U.S. community could benefit as well?’”

She recounts, “Five of us stayed overnight and finished the whole validation within one day. We had people doing the experiments, people running the data, and then I compiled everything and wrote the report. By 7 pm the next day, we submitted it to the FDA.” Less than twelve hours later, Avellino received an acknowledgement letter from the FDA. Then within three weeks, Avellino received the Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA. 

Severely understaffed, the company piloted its life saving product using its first responder partners in Hayward, California as a testing site. Dr. Chao-Shern raves, “The fire departments are the real heroes. Fire Chief Garrett Contreras of the City of Hayward wanted to serve the vulnerable community who couldn’t afford to pay for the tests. Our tests were the only option for many people when the outbreak began, and many people were frantic.” While delivering tests, the Hayward Fire Department helped uncover a series of positive COVID-19 cases at local nursing home facilities, and worked with the city to put preventive measures in place. 

Fortifying the front line, and driven by their mission of service, Avellino employees pushed through the long hours and sleepless nights to create a product that would alleviate a lot of the uncertainty and panic in their communities. “During the first few days, it was really difficult,” Dr. Chao-Shern remembers. “We had limited staffing, instruments, and reagents. We rotated shifts and did our best to get the samples out so patients could get their results.” Shortly after, the Fremont Fire Station came on board, and Avellino’s lab technicians flew in from Japan and Korea to help support the U.S. lab functions. It truly was a group effort.

With a focused distribution toward companies and high-volume customer bases, Avellino hasn’t stopped innovating. When CMS doubled the price of each test from $50 to $100 due to short supply, and mandated that health insurance cover them without copays or deductibles, Avellino reached out to Revenue Cycle Management Co. and established a factor agreement to provide tests on consignment. Now, companies and municipalities can request tests at cost, return them directly to Avellino’s lab, and receive rapid results within 48 hours, often in as few as four to eight hours. 

Building a brighter tomorrow

Since March 2020, Avellino has pivoted almost entirely to address COVID-19. Having more than doubled its workforce and continuing to hire, the company has temporarily suspended its legacy operations, working around the clock to develop and optimize its COVID-19 testing abilities. “In the beginning, we didn’t know what we were doing,” recalls Head of Legal and Human Resources John Hong, “and didn’t know how to integrate all of the people we had toward a common mission.” Banding together toward a singular goal of serving the community, employees jumped on phone calls with health agencies, provided meals, managed communications, and worked until the early morning, waking a few hours later to do it all again. “When we come out of this, we’ll have had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and formed a lifelong bond,” says Hong. 

And the world will never be the same.

In the span of three months, and more than 20,000 tests later, Avellino Labs’ coronavirus test is considered second to none in accuracy and quality. “It is a team effort,” says Avellino Labs Key Account Director Liz Puwal. “We’re a small company, but at times we work as if we’re 500 people deep. We’re doing everything we can to alleviate costs and keep people safe.”

Looking to the future, Avellino has no plans of slowing its COVID-19 efforts. In fact, the company is exploring partnerships to provide antibody tests and telemedicine ordering and reporting, leveraging its innovations to add value by using its COVID-19 tests to optimize ophthalmic surgeries, automating its processes, and addressing the needs of vulnerable populations by providing weekly tests to nursing homes across the country. Capitalizing upon high credit limits from Brex to maximize productivity and expand its impact, Avellino has also added fourteen new PCR machines to its lab. “Brex’s high credit limits have been enormously helpful,” says Avellino Labs CFO Chris Lehman. “That credit allows us to keep up with the growth that accompanies our life saving testing.”

"Brex’s high credit limits have been enormously helpful. That credit allows us to keep up with the growth that accompanies our life-saving testing."

Having distinguished itself initially within the first responder community and ultimately across the country, Avellino Labs will continue to build its legacy business in tandem with its COVID-19 efforts. After increasing test sensitivities, validating several backup products, and delivering rapid testing to vulnerable populations in the community, Avellino isn’t quitting now. As an honorary first responder itself, the company has proven itself vital on the front lines of the counter-COVID-19 offensive. And its ability to meet the challenge and provide life saving impact has given the organization a great deal of confidence. In April, Lehman recalls a profound and uplifting buzz among employees. “In contrast to the panic and uncertainty of the previous month, everyone was thrilled to have some agency in the face of the outbreak, to feel like they were part of the solution.”

And visits to the Hayward and Fremont fire department testing sites to collect patient samples have given Avellino employees the opportunity to meet patients in person and ask them how they’re doing. “The overwhelmingly positive feedback keeps us going,” says Dr. Chao-Shern. “It reminds us that we’re here to help these people. We are so grateful and honored to have partnered with community heroes to give our community what it needs.”

Pairing the scientific with the humanitarian, innovators like Avellino are helping to make our world safer and providing hope for our future. During these trying times, we’re proud to serve our inspiring customers and help them dream big, and Brex is here to help them do so every step of the way. We are reimagining financial systems to help every growing company realize its full potential—and change the world.

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