It may not be quite business as usual as the state reopens and a new sense of normal takes shape amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, but a business accelerator program is pivoting to the health industry and University of Virginia students are testing out an app that could bolster contact tracing. 

Lighthouse Labs RVA, a Richmond-based accelerator program, is seeking applications for its Fall 2020 cohort. The program, which occurs twice a year, is a three-month intensive where seed-stage startups receive investment and mentoring. This cohort will place a focus on health through a partnership with the Health Innovation Consortium.

While the most recent cohort focused on education, Lighthouse Executive Director Erin Powell said that the idea for this one had been to focus on healthcare for some time — with the pandemic entering the picture, it is even more timely. 

“Typically, we are looking for high-growth tech companies, but we started adding in a layer of industry specification,” Powell explained. 

HIC first launched in 2019 to bring health innovators into the market and was founded by Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU Health and Activation Capital, a nonprofit organization that focuses on early-stage ideas. 

“The partnership with Activation Capital and VCU Health are important because those people are helping to provide mentors, guidance, and expertise for the health companies in the program,” Powell said.

Meanwhile, Lighthouse Labs will provide the business acumen for planning, product development, and sales. 

The program is Richmond-based but applicants from around Virginia, to include Charlottesville, are encouraged to apply. With a deadline of June 15, the next cohort will run from August to November. 

“One of the big initiatives for Activation Capital and Lighthouse Labs is to expand our programs throughout the state,” Powell explained. “We do require at least one of the founders of the company to be on-site in Richmond with us for those three months to the degree that is feasible for people.” 

With the pandemic necessitating social distancing in recent months, she explained that adjustments may need to be made for this cohort. 

“We are hoping that all or parts of it can be in-person. Obviously, we are going to follow any guidelines that are applicable during that time,” she explained. 

In the meantime, Lighthouse Labs is hosting a virtual summer program that she says is a way for the organization to “get its feet wet” with the structure. 

In tandem with the health-focused vertical, the fall cohort is also open to applications that are industry agnostic. 

“We still want to look at companies outside of the industry and we would run those programs in tandem with anything specific just to healthcare would only be applicable to those founders during this accelerator,” Powell explained. “Everything will be under the lens of high-growth technology.”

Testing out a tracing app

Heeding the caution as the novel coronavirus began spreading beyond its origin earlier this year, college students have been developing a contact tracing app since February. 

Developed by two UVA students, and one University of Notre Dame student, the Bluetooth-based app has been undergoing beta testing and the team hopes to have it available for free on the app store within the coming weeks. 

Rohan Taneja, along with Emerson Berlik of UVa and Matthew Jennings of Notre Dame, currently have about 50 users beta testing the technology, and with Notre Dame’s looming reopening and the full reopening plans to be revealed by UVa in the next few weeks, the team hopes their development will be a helpful tool. 

“Notre Dame fully reopens in August, so it’s a huge reason we wanted to get this rolling and let people know early on,” Taneja explained. 

Dubbed TraceX, the app functions by users anonymously updating their status on whether or not they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, have been tested, and if they’ve been confirmed positive. If another phone that has the Bluetooth-enabled app has been in proximity to one that has reported experiencing symptoms or a positive COVID test, TraceX sends a notification. 

The privacy preservation, Taneja feels, is key to garnering more adoption of using the app on a larger scale. 

“It’s a solution that is not going to know who you are,” Taneja said. 

As the Virginia Department of Health expands staff to assist with contact tracing, case investigations, and testing, Taneja said a lot of prevention power lies in the actions of individuals as well. 

Taneja noted the role social distancing and self-quarantine has played in mitigating the spread of the virus but reiterated the fact that people can be asymptomatic and unaware they have COVID-19.

“All the strategies to flatten the curve have worked so well. As we reopen, we can’t be blind about who might be exposed,” he explained. “And if we have this tool that keeps it anonymous but allows us to do our part, we finally have  a way to not be in the dark.”