How Teamwork and Opportunity Produced a Medical Breakthrough

An unlikely pandemic pivot from a Houston startup might give the world a one-step test for COVID-19, lung cancer, and more.

Apr 13, 2021 · 5 min read

If you asked Asma Mirza what she was up to last year, she would have told you all about Steradian Technologies, her Houston-based startup that was developing a product that recreates human eyesight using something called photonics. The light-based technology would be integrated with a pair of glasses to provide more contrast, higher resolution, and enhanced depth perception. Potential applications seemed limitless, such as surgeons using the technology to achieve better outcomes.

Then COVID-19 arrived. Talks with investors stalled, and suddenly the company had no funding on the horizon. “That was a huge hit to us,” says Mirza, who had so far financed the company through partnerships and personal savings.

The team was back at square one right as problems with COVID-19 testing emerged. Issues with testing supply, lab capacity, and false negatives were rampant in the pandemic’s early days, and Mirza and her team started asking what felt like an obvious question: “We sat there and wondered, why doesn’t somebody just invent a test that doesn’t require a lab?”

They quickly realized their own technology offered a solution. “We figured out that we could use photonics to amplify a bacteria, virus, biomarker, or whatever it is at the speed of light,” she explains. “It happens instantaneously, and you can use it anywhere, without a lab.”

It’s a solution that sounds almost too good to be true. Called the RUMI, the Steradian invention is an accurate, easy-to-use, and cheap alternative to the unpleasant nasal swabs routinely used to test for COVID-19. You simply breathe into a tube, and within 30 seconds the handheld device can detect and diagnose COVID-19. The breathalyzer device offers 99% accuracy and only costs about $5 per test.

Some might be surprised that such an important development came out of a small Houston startup, but Mirza begs to differ. It’s precisely her team’s unorthodox mix of expertise in photonics, mechanical engineering, synthetic biology, and global health — a combination that you’d likely never find at a pharmaceutical company or academic lab — that led to Steradian’s head-turning breakthrough and, most recently, a win at the $6 million XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing competition.

“I truly believe that’s why we came up with it,” she says of Steradian’s unexpected pandemic pivot. “It’s because of the unique composition of the team.”

A Belief in Impact

When Mirza was growing up in Houston, she never saw a future in business. Her mother and grandmother had operated a free women’s clinic in their native Pakistan, which drove Mirza to pursue an interest in medicine and social justice. First, she completed her undergrad and took the MCAT. She also got a master’s degree in global health and human rights. But instead of enrolling in medical school, what followed was a period of “post-grad doom” that left her back in Houston searching for her next steps.

“I had this idea of merging all of that together and being this badass social warrior doctor on the front line somewhere,” she remembers. “And as I was trying to just figure out all of this in life, I landed in the Texas Medical Center. I didn’t even know that there were opportunities of business or entrepreneurship here.”

That experience led to her first startup, a now-shuttered DNA dating app called Pheramor. She left the company in 2018, but the experience taught her a lot about running a business and clarified what exactly she wanted to do with her life. “I realized my passion really lies in inventing something that can fundamentally shift healthcare, but at the time I didn’t know how I was going to do it,” she says.

An introduction led her to her Steradian co-founders. From the jump, she saw the team’s potential of building a social enterprise that combined all of her interests.

“We talk about these big ideas of activism and justice and taking down systems, but it usually only happens incrementally,” Mirza says. “When you mix that ethos with something like entrepreneurship, it gives you so much room to do whatever you want. I think that’s one of the most powerful things you can do.”

A Different Kind of Company

In her role as Steradian’s CEO, Mirza takes her role seriously as one of the few women of color leading a tech startup.

“Generally, when you look at CEOs or people at the top, they’re people who have trampled on other people to get there,” she says. “I remember thinking that I don’t ever want to be that person.”

Instead, Mirza has invested herself in the local startup scene to build valuable relationships through organizations like Leadership Houston. “When you build those relationships, it’s a lot easier to have a genuine conversation and receive a positive response when you ask for something,” she says. This people-first approach has opened doors for access to lab space, grant funding, and mentorship.

Steradian also applies this ethos to its own team, with each person receiving equity to recognize their “fundamental contribution to our work.” Mirza sees this policy through a social justice lens.

“You hear a lot about the wage gap and the gender pay gap, and all of this stuff. We may not have all the funds in the world at this point to close those gaps, but there’s still stuff you can do,” she says. “That’s why I believe it’s important to give equity to people who come on to the company, even if it’s a little percentage.”

Together, Mirza believes she and her team will deliver a product with far-reaching implications. Your breath, she explains, contains a wealth of biomarkers that offer insight into a vast array of underlying health conditions, including COVID-19, tuberculosis, and even lung and breast cancer. “We believe that if we can have a routine test that every time you go to your primary care physician’s office, you just blow into a tube, and it can at least tell you if you have something starting to build up,” says Mirza, adding that early detection of a disease like lung cancer could save thousands of lives per year.

Going forward, the startup will continue research on potential applications. Steradian was recently named a winner in the XPRIZE Rapid COVID Testing competition and a finalist for the MedTech Innovator program. The company is also applying for research funding from the National Institutes of Health to explore the RUMI’s ability to detect early-stage, non-small cell lung cancer.

It’s a long way from where Steradian started, but Mirza is happy to follow the technology wherever it leads.

“Every step of the way, I remember there was so much doubt, but we kept thinking, what are we going to lose? If we just go ahead and try, the worst thing we’re going to get is a rejection.”