Robert Koch knows that nasal swab testing is going to be a key piece of Canada’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. But in order to make it an effective piece of a ‘back to business’ strategy, those swab tests will need to be completed correctly in large volumes, and that’s going to require training for a lot of non-medical personnel.
“You can say that you want to hit 30,000, 50,000, 100,000 swabs a day, but if half of those are people sticking a Q-Tip into someone’s nose and just touching the nostril, that’s doing more harm than good,” explains Koch, founder of AHead Simulations and a BURST Life Science Accelerator alum. “Those people will get a false negative test result and go about their day thinking they don’t have coronavirus, when they really do.”
That’s why Koch is redesigning his audiology training simulator, known as CARL, as a training tool for frontline workers, medical and non-medical, who will be conducting hundreds of thousands of nasal swab tests.
“In order to scale the number of swabs being done, it will be in the hands of regular people. I think the quality of the swab will define the future of testing, and what a potential second wave might look like.”
This timely pivot came from a serendipitous moment, when Koch was speaking to a medical response unit in Kitchener-Waterloo. “They asked ‘is there any chance you can accommodate your model for nasal swabs?’ and from that moment on, we’ve been digging into the issues with nasal swabs, and is there really something we can help out with here, and adjusting our model accordingly.
“So we’ve really only been focusing on it since the end of April, and we’ve been developing prototypes along the way.”
That process is happening on a much quicker timeframe than the two years that went into the research and development of the original CARL, including two large validation studies.
“Going through all of that, I’ve learned what pieces of that study had the most impact in terms of people adopting the technology,” Koch details. “We can really trim the extra parts that might not be needed, and focus on the biggest impact at the end of the day.”
Koch envisions that impact looking similar to CPR certification, where employees complete a quick training module, then demonstrate on a CPR dummy at the end. “We would have a very similar model, with a brief training module, and then with the simulator to ensure that the swabs are being done correctly. The big difference is it would all be done remotely.”
So, how does this new simulator work? By giving trainees an ultra-realistic simulation of a nasal cavity set in a mannequin head that helps them visualize if they are conducting a proper swab.
“The nose is made much like our ears, 3D printed directly from clinical CT scans,” Koch details. “On the back of the nose insert, there’s a sensor that can tell if you’ve done a proper pharyngeal swab. With our early testing sites, we have a camera that can give testers even more insight into where their swab is going and if they are doing a proper swab.”
Soon, AHead Simulations will be launching a pilot study with healthcare providers. With their validation, and proof that their training protocol results in better quality samples and fewer false negatives, Koch expects to then start focusing on the business community. “With the Ontario government announcing that testing will soon be in the hands of businesses, we want to be able to equip people within those workplaces with the skills to do the swabs.”
“According to the CDC, the most important part of the testing is the initial sample taking. If we can be sure that everyone conducting those swabs are conducting them properly, we’re halfway there.”
Post-pandemic, the quick addition of a new product to AHead Simulations’ roster also opens the door to new opportunities in the future, which Koch is ready to explore.
“This is a great springboard to look beyond the audiology world that we’re currently in. There’s a lot of other areas in which these advanced simulations can help with learning and training, and this is a fantastic start to broadening our focus and getting these simulations out to whoever needs them.”
As the company continues to grow, with manufacturing in the GTA, and ongoing research and development in London through the National Centre for Audiology, Koch has also hired from his alma mater, Western University, where he graduated with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Engineering.
The next step for AHead Solutions will moving their office space into TechAlliance’s new home at 333 Dufferin Ave, coworking alongside fellow London startup entrepreneurs as we unveil our new home as part of Ontario’s safe reopening.
If you’re looking to pivot your business, launch a new effort to support the fight against COVID-19, or have any questions about becoming an entrepreneur, start a conversation with our Venture Growth & Corporate Innovation.