Priit Möller

An Estonian deep technology platform detects a large portion of respiratory infections.

After the devastating coronavirus pandemic, many development projects worldwide began to create new and more effective diagnostic technologies. The Estonian development company LDI Innovations has now completed the Fluo Reader device, which detects a large portion of upper respiratory tract infections, including the coronavirus. The article comes from Novaator.

The Difference Between Platforms and Platforms

In the last decade, platform businesses have achieved success. It is likely that this term is no longer unfamiliar to even non-business people in Estonia. A significant portion of people order food through various platforms, use ride-sharing services, or rent scooters, bicycles, etc., write LDI Innovations CEO Sergei Babitsenko and Professor Jaak Järv from the Institute of Chemistry at the University of Tartu.

Several Estonian companies with a market value exceeding one billion euros have emerged globally, with their business models based specifically on developing platform services. The most well-known among these are Wise and Bolt. Per capita, we have risen to become the country that has generated the most unicorns in the world.

A completely different picture emerges in the realm of deep technology business models. Deep technology (deeptech) platforms represent a technological platform or infrastructure that uses fundamental science and innovative technical knowledge based on it to create novel solutions. Deep technology typically focuses on solving complex problems and developing cutting-edge technologies. These often require extensive scientific research, top-level engineering skills, and specialized knowledge and experience.

Authors of a report on the state of deep technology in Europe published at the end of last year pointed out that the development of deep technology business models can be more capital-intensive, and development times are considerably longer compared to conventional startups. Consequently, top-level technology forms the core of these models. This protects such companies from competition and offers much more comprehensive intellectual property (IP) protection for their technologies.

Compared to the above, deep technology platforms thus have a significant advantage. They are either extremely difficult or impossible to copy. This provides additional motivation for the owners and investors of such projects. With their technology, they are essentially in a monopolistic position in the market and may remain so for a very long time.

Their monopolistic status does not arise from state regulations, like natural monopolies in the traditional economy, but from the originality of the technology, which is very hard to imitate. If a competitor wants to capture their market share and customers, they must bring to market at least an equivalent technological platform. Usually, it must be even more effective.

HealthTech vs MedTech 

Dr Aleksei Kuznetsov using the Fluo Reader machine
Dr Aleksei Kuznetsov using the Fluo Reader machine (author: Priit Möller)

Today, the market is flooded with thousands of health-oriented apps and other platforms that aim to improve our health in various ways. Some offer diets, others training environments, and yet others holistic music for mental therapy, etc. The list is literally endless.

A completely different story applies to medical technology platforms, which are based on previous fundamental scientific publications, extensive research and development work, and a completely different level of technological engineering.

Medical technology (medtech) involves the development, production, and marketing of medical devices, technologies, and services. These cover a wide range of areas, from diagnostics and treatment monitoring to the development of medical devices and instruments, and medical software solutions.

Medtech platforms also play a significant role in modern innovative healthcare, as they make it possible to use innovative solutions and technologies that improve patient care, diagnostics, and quality of life.

Medical technology platforms evolve in line with market demand. Several leading analysis houses worldwide have highlighted a trend where more and more health issues that traditionally required stationary treatment and diagnosis are moving out of hospital wards. In other words, they are becoming outpatient. High-quality, academically-based medical services are increasingly being brought to people at home, so they do not need to visit a doctor for a quality health diagnosis.

This is not absolute, but certain methods and technologies have made remarkable progress. And this progress continues!

A significant impetus for diagnosing various infectious diseases and other pathogens was given by the now-receded SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Humanity was forced to rapidly develop and implement various diagnostic and treatment methods.

The momentum has not waned. Many technological development companies are working to be ready for future pandemics. In the interim, they often provide people with other everyday diagnostic tools that improve their quality of life and ensure good health.

VIRUP Project

Among those striving for this and applying deep technology is also found in Estonia. The high-tech development company LDI Innovations team has in recent years contributed to the development of the "Pathogenic Virus Spread Surveillance Technological Platform," or the VIRUP project. The project's goal was to develop a technological platform that would quickly, reliably, and affordably detect disease-causing viruses. Surface tests would allow this to be done both indoors and outdoors.

Surface tests here essentially mean two approaches. On one hand, there are viruses that spread through contact surfaces, such as various noroviruses, and viruses that spread through droplets, like the COVID-19 virus that caused the last pandemic. Eventually, these also appear on various surfaces. The technology developed by LDI Innovations is particularly well-suited for detecting the spread of the virus.

During COVID-19, the most used method for detecting the spread area and intensity was continuous wastewater analysis. Our technology allows for surface samples to be taken from various public places – airports and train stations, dining places, and even streets – and detect the prevalence of the virus through surface analyses.

We tested the developed technological platform using the coronavirus that caused the pandemic as an example. However, the platform is extendable and adaptable for detecting other viruses causing severe diseases. Including it in regular surveillance could provide an opportunity to prevent outbreaks at the outset. The planned technological solution was based on combining photonics techniques and novel molecular detection (patented qLMI – quantum-labeled molecular interaction technology).

The patented intellectual property allows through various reagents, i.e., initially impregnated kits understandable to different viruses, and by contacting surfaces with them, to later detect various infections and their epidemic spread using the Fluo Reader. This universality was the primary basis for the patent. In summary, LDI Innovations' technology allows for the detection of various viral infections on-site and obtaining results in less than five minutes.

Currently, during the development work, we have carried out work in two phases – completed the applied research (TRL-4) and advanced to the product development (TRL-6) phase. What exactly have we done in recent years?

During the applied research, we focused on developing an efficient fluorescence sensor that allows for the detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. For this, we synthesized several receptor peptides and dyes and tested them in laboratory studies. Subsequently, the development work included creating the testing method, including sample collection methods, reaction solution, optical test tube, swab, and surface testing procedure.

We then focused on developing the sample cell unit for spectral analysis along with the testing method, which included internal quality control of the sample. We examined various spectral-optical designs and the cell's use for qLMI receptor development. The tests confirmed the analytical selectivity and reliability of the qLMI method for detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In other words, the tests confirmed that our method allows for the detection of the coronavirus and distinguishing it from other viruses.

Finally, we focused on studying receptor molecules for other target viruses based on computational biochemistry. Computer simulations showed that the qLMI method can also be used for detecting various respiratory viruses, including influenza and norovirus.

In the second phase of the development work over the last one and a half years, our development team attempted to bring a commercial prototype to market. We succeeded in this, meaning we moved from the earlier basic and applied research phase to the product development phase.

Achieving the results was significantly aided by our created digital data platform, which enables data transmission, mapping, and analysis. We used modern technologies to ensure secure access to data and enable statistical analysis. A crucial step in advancing the technology was the development of instructions and work protocols.

Our method for testing surface contamination allowed for testing the platform in other independent laboratories. This enabled validation studies, confirming the reliability and effectiveness of the method in a neutral and academically high-level research institution, without our development team being able to influence the results in any way.

Various technological enhancements, including determining the statistical detection limit and redesigning the optically modeled cell, took the development work to a new level and directed the technology towards the validation process.

The validation of the technology with real viruses in the biosafety laboratory of the University of Tartu Institute of Technology confirmed the effectiveness and reliability of the technology. Since the experiments showed that the device was sensitive enough to detect live coronavirus, we can now say that the technology is ready for reproduction and commercialization.

The results of LDI Innovations' development work showed that deep technology diagnostic technologies based on Estonian academic science are entirely possible. We can contribute from here in Estonia to global virus control and better health for people.

Next, we plan to expand the spectrum of viruses that the Fluo Reader can detect, meaning we will continue product development. In the first phase, we plan to launch a public service that allows for detecting possible viral spread from surface samples taken from shared surfaces. Subsequently, we plan to clinically validate the FluoReader technology, allowing it to be used for analyzing patient viral infections.

What is the Fluo Reader device good for in summary?

Efficient virus detection and monitoring. The qLMI technology combined with the Fluo Reader enables the rapid and reliable detection of SARS-CoV-2 and several other pathogens. This aids in monitoring the spread of various viruses and allows for a more effective response to disease outbreaks, helping to protect public health.

Fluo Reader is a data analysis and mapping platform. Creating a digital data platform enables data collection, analysis, and mapping in real-time. This allows healthcare institutions and authorities to quickly get an overview of the spread of various viruses and take necessary measures to control it.

Simplified testing protocols. Developing Fluo Reader work protocols and testing methods makes virus testing simpler and faster. This can reduce the complexity and costs associated with testing and increase the accessibility of testing to a broader population.

Technological innovation. Technical enhancements, including determining the detection limit and redesigning the optical cell, increase the effectiveness and accuracy of the technology. This can help detect viruses in earlier stages and take quick measures to prevent their spread.

In summary, through qLMI technology, Fluo Reader can help combat various future pandemics. It could also detect a range of everyday annoying pathogens during non-pandemic times, enabling quick and effective virus detection

Fluo Reader research group: Dr. Jaak Järv, Dr. Aleksei Kuznetsov, Dr. Anton Mastitski, Dr. Eerold Vellmäe
Fluo Reader research group: Dr. Jaak Järv, Dr. Aleksei Kuznetsov, Dr. Anton Mastitski, Dr. Eerold Vellmäe (author: Priit Möller)
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