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The brothers behind the only public saliva Covid-19 tests in NZ

Wanting to disrupt the Covid-19 testing industry, brothers Stephen and Leon Grice founded Rako Science, and introduced a non-invasive saliva PCR test to New Zealand.

In the height of Covid-19 in 2020, businessmen and brothers Stephen and Leon Grice saw an opportunity to leverage their US connections and bring new molecular biology technology to New Zealand to help address the pandemic.

Throughout 2020, as New Zealand went in and out of lockdowns, the brothers saw an increasing need for a new Covid-19 testing option that was accurate and could be scaled up.

“We saw the need for a PCR test that was non-invasive that would be more easily accepted and also highly accurate and highly sensitive,” says Leon.

Stephen Grice has scientific connections with the University of Illinois and had just completed a joint project with its mathematics department to develop a novel analytical method for modelling Covid-19 spread. 

He and Professor Richard Laugesen from the university were friends in high school and in mid-2020 he alerted the brothers to the development of a PCR saliva test led by a fellow research colleague, Martin Burke.

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“We had also been working with US expat and entrepreneur, Sean Colgan on a number of projects and he agreed to become an honorary third brother when we established the start-up to do Covid-19 testing.”

Seeing its potential, the brothers established Rako Science and a top team of Kiwi scientists to bring the saliva test to New Zealand, validate it and have it accredited for use.  

“We licensed the test in September 2020 and, through working night and day, Rako Science was fully operational by January of 2021,” says Leon.

Unlike the existing PCR tests in New Zealand, Rako Science was the first diagnostically validated PCR test in the country.

Stephen says that when introducing the saliva test to the country, everyone reacted with surprise.

“Because we came out of nowhere, others were sceptical, but this is reasonable in the field of science,” he says.

But Rako Science was able to justify its science claims by publishing a research peer-reviewed validation study and operating within an ISO 15189 laboratory.

The process for the test begins when a saliva sample is taken from the individual. The sample is then heat treated at 95C. The heat step is the secret sauce.

Experts say that the heat treatment process inactivates the virus, allowing the scientists to easily handle the sample with lower risk. It also eliminates the need for an RNA extraction step which is labour intensive and time-consuming.

Once the saliva samples are heat treated, they are then taken to the pre-analytical laboratory and prepared for the PCR tests which determines whether or not the Covid-19 virus is detected.

With samples and a vast database of clinical and pathology data Rako Science is now able to assess how long the individual may have had the virus and how contagious they are.

Through Rako Science, the process to determine whether a person is positive or negative from the virus is an average turnaround time of six to nine hours. Customers are sent official results by midnight via text on the day they test.

In their first year of operation, Leon says it was both “chaotic and turbulent” with how the disease played out, with the country in a nationwide lockdown due to a Delta variant outbreak.

However, for Rako Science, it was a good time to be in operation.

Stephen Grice.

“There is a terrific need for them [saliva testing], the demand was in the community, and we were really just responding to it,” he says.

“The way the disease has played out in New Zealand almost perfectly met our timeframe.  By the time of the Delta outbreak in August 2021 we were fully capable of meeting the challenge.  We were there for it, and we caught it,” says Stephen.

Stephen adds that operating since the beginning of the pandemic helped them understand what was needed for any potential surges during the pandemic.

“Those extra few months of the lockdown really allowed us the time and space to be ready for when it happened,” he says.

“If that surge happened in March of 2021, everyone would have been broken, including us.”

Leon says that Rako Science developed its own insights and data on the pandemic and “managed to build scalable systems on a pandemic scale and a national scale”.

So, when the surge of the Delta outbreak came along in August of 2021, Rako Science “coped easily”.

Leon adds before the August outbreak when Covid-19 had been eliminated, there wasn’t much demand for PCR public testing, so instead Rako Science shifted its focus.

“We spent that pre-outbreak period focusing on what is quite a difficult market to serve, the pre-departure and travel certificate market,” he says.

Rako Science built online systems and cybersecurity and the information services necessary to service this demanding market.

“That work paid off and from the middle of 2020 we managed to dominate that market with excellent service, and we continued to dominate it in 2021,” he says.

He adds that because of this work, the skills and knowledge they learnt while ensuring that customers were well served and didn’t miss their flights, made them “bulletproof” during the Delta and Omicron outbreaks.

Coming out of the Omicron peaks, though the demand for PCR tests has declined, Rako Science continues to dominate the market for travel certificates and workplace testing for private companies.

Rako Science is the workplace testing provider to a number of communities such as the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth games teams, and companies like Genesis Energy, and screen productions across the country.

The evolution of the technology will continue for Rako Science and Stephen says that “this is not the first or the last respiratory illness”.

“What we have developed is scalable and productive and it can go further up that exponential wall of pandemics than any other testing system in New Zealand,” he says.

“It would be a great shame if what we have learnt and brought to New Zealand is forgotten for the next challenge that we face.”

Stephen says that they are validating and developing new tests and building the data systems so they are relevant across the healthcare system.

“Our next test will be for Covid-19 antibodies and will identify whether those antibodies are a result of Covid-19 wild infection or through vaccination and we are looking at pathology testing opportunities offshore,” Stephen says.

But for the time being, New Zealand continues to be Rako Science’s home base as they continue to evolve alongside not just the pandemic, but also the world of healthcare.

Bernadette is a content writer across SCG Business titles. To get in touch with her, email [email protected]

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