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How an Ann Arbor company became a leading COVID testing lab in Michigan

LynxDx originally created to screen for prostate cancer

A lab tech handles a tray of COVID-19 test samples at LynxDx's headquarters on Jan. 20, 2021.
A lab tech handles a tray of COVID-19 test samples at LynxDx's headquarters on Jan. 20, 2021. (Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – When Yashar Niknafs co-founded LynxDx in 2019, he never imagined the complete transformation the startup would undergo during a global pandemic that would hit just a year later.

The company, which he started with his PhD mentor at the University of Michigan, was launched to develop a urine test that could screen for prostate cancer based on existing research.

After a successful fundraising round, the company moved into its permanent space on Ann Arbor’s west side in February 2020. On March 10, the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in Michigan, and as the virus spread through the state, the need for testing was great.

“There were news articles every day about how there’s not enough testing,” said Niknafs. “So, we’re sitting here looking at the instruments knowing we could do the test. We had barely even been in this building. And we didn’t have any of the infrastructure to run the test.”

Testing requires regulatory approval, reporting, billing insurance and more -- none of which the company was set up to do, especially with a new virus that medical experts were still learning about. In the end, they saw an opportunity.

“We just decided to go all in,” said Niknafs.

LynxDx CEO and co-founder Yashar Niknafs. (Meredith Bruckner)

They ordered PCR machines at $100,000 apiece and rapidly expanded their teams, hiring techs and a medical director in order to carry out the testing.

An early dilemma

Equipped and ready to begin testing samples, they immediately hit a roadblock. As a new company, it was difficult to find a partner despite the urgent need for more testing.

“It was the weirdest thing because you would hear about a shortage of testing and we were on the other side like, ‘How do we get samples?’” said Clinical Operations Manager Ani Shirvanian.

“We reached out to various hospitals asking to take their overflow,” said Niknafs. “I don’t think there’s any one person to blame. Now that we’re on this side of it, I get it. Random labs can reach out and you don’t know the quality of that test.”

Coincidentally, many of the hospitals that initially denied their request for overflow samples are now some of LynxDx’s top partners.

After extensive efforts to strike up a partnership with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, LynxDx was put on a task force for testing in rural Michigan where the need for testing was dire. The company partnered with a nurse staffing agency to carry out the sample collection in order to oversee the entire testing operation end-to-end.

After gaining experience running drive-thru testing sites in northern Michigan, including in Traverse City, LynxDx was ready to expand their efforts.

A QuantStudio 12K Flex Real-Time PCR System at LynxDx's headquarters in Ann Arbor. (Meredith Bruckner)

“I was really passionate about nursing homes early on because they’re tinder boxes,” said Niknafs. “It’s crazy to me that there wasn’t testing occurring. For the longest time, they were only testing symptomatic individuals.”

Shirvanian established relationships with dozens of nursing homes, communicating with staff on a regular basis.

“Being able to communicate with the lab directly that can provide you with the answers, I think it is what has really set us apart from some of the larger companies,” said Shirvanian.

LynxDx now serves roughly 35 nursing homes which it tests once a week. In the case that positive cases rise in a given county, it tests individuals living and working in those facilities twice a week.

By October, LynxDx was on a roll and it released new saliva-based tests. It partnered with the Washtenaw County Health Department for a study and soon after began working with the University of Michigan.

Saliva samples are stored for COVID-19 PCR testing at LynxDx's headquarters in Ann Arbor. (Meredith Bruckner)

“We’re doing 10,000 tests a week for U-M,” said Niknafs. “We did -- and continue to do -- all of their screening and asymptomatic testing.”

LynxDx also does testing for St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital.

As of Jan. 20, the company is the second leading lab for COVID testing in Michigan, following Curative DC, according to MDHHS.

Drive-thru testing in Ann Arbor

In mid-November, LynxDx opened a drive-thru testing site in Ann Arbor in the parking lot of 2|42 Community Church at 648 S. Wagner Rd.

The testing site offers saliva-based tests, which are self-administered and dropped in a large sample box for a no-contact experience.

LynxDx's drive-thru testing site at 648 S. Wagner Rd. (Meredith Bruckner)

The site is open seven days a week to all members of the public with or without health insurance.

Registration is required for testing. To register, click here.

Test results are available via email and text within 48 hours.

A sample drop box with instructions at LynxDx's drive-thru testing site at 648 S. Wagner Rd. in Ann Arbor. (Meredith Bruckner)

Turnaround time for testing is one of the most important factors in the operation, said Niknafs.

“Seventy two-hour turnaround time, in my opinion, is just unacceptable,” he said. “Our average turnaround time from the sample getting into our doors is half a day.”

However, getting those samples in the door can be a challenge.

The risk of a delivery service like UPS losing a box of samples is too high, said Niknafs. The solution? Couriers.

“Ani put in a Herculean effort to hire couriers,” said Niknafs. “In my opinion, it’s worth it. If a box is lost, that could be an outbreak. It’s a lot of extra work, but that’s also part of what we do that I think makes us a bit different. Cutting corners is never going to work.”

Yashar Niknafs reviews real-time COVID-19 test results at LynxDx's headquarters on Jan. 20, 2021. Spikes on the graph indicate a positive result. (Meredith Bruckner)

Accuracy is another critical factor for Niknafs and his colleagues.

“Every single one of our positive results that we report, we run twice,” said Niknafs. “We are very careful and want to make sure that the integrity of our results is sound.”

For that reason, at least two sets of eyes are looking at each sample in the lab.

“We really got into this because we wanted to leave a mark and make a difference,” he said. “Until there’s no longer a need for testing, we are just going to help as much as we can.”

For more information about LynxDx, visit www.lynxdx.com.


About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.