Nicoya receives over $290K in funding to develop a portable COVID-19 diagnostic test

The AC grad is developing a solution to make COVID-19 testing accessible to everyone.

June 17, 2020

This update was written by AC grad Nicoya, a leading provider of advanced analytical instruments for the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

Many economies around the world are in the midst of planning for their reopening, after months of global shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the many lessons that are being learned worldwide, frequent and widespread testing has been widely accepted as an effective strategy for containing the spread of infection, and expanding testing capabilities is now a vital component of safe reopening plans everywhere. That is why developing Made in Canada solutions that are accessible and widely-available is among the top priorities for Canada, and the world at large, and organizations everywhere are stepping to the front lines to help meet this goal.

As part of this effort, the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) has selected Nicoya to receive up to $299,190 in funding to develop a portable COVID-19 diagnostic test that will expand testing capabilities in centralized settings (such as hospital and testing laboratories) as well as point-of-care settings (such as local clinics and long-term care homes).

“We’re funding four Canadian companies who are working on what may be breakthrough solutions for COVID-19 rapid testing,” said Justin Trudeau in a recent update about the federal COVID-19 response. The grant was awarded to Canadian businesses as part of the NRC IRAP-ISC COVID-19 Challenge Program, an open call to action from the federal government for solutions to fight current and future outbreaks of this novel coronavirus.

At Nicoya, our mission is to improve human life through scientific innovation, and our solutions have enabled scientific research aimed at treating disease for years. The world is currently counting on the scientific community to bring forward the most effective solutions against COVID-19, and as a commitment to our mission we are doing our part to support this global fight.


Types of COVID-19 tests


According to the FDA, there are two types of COVID-19 tests – diagnostic tests and antibody tests. Diagnostic tests are able to test for active infection by detecting the presence of the virus, while antibody tests are able to test for past infection by detecting antibodies made by the immune system in response to viral infection.

While diagnostic testing has proven to be successful in accurately detecting COVID-19 infection, the primary method has been molecular-based, where the test involves using a technique called reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) to detect the virus’s genetic material. However, this type of testing often requires specialized testing facilities and technical staff to process results. An alternative method for diagnostic testing is based on testing for specific viral antigens, which are proteins on the surface of the virus. Because of the simplicity of antigen tests, they produce results more rapidly and are easier to employ in point-of-care settings.


An alternative method for diagnostic testing is based on testing for specific viral antigens, which are proteins on the surface of the virus.

The importance of testing


With the re-opening of economies around the world, governments are implementing many additional and necessary precautions in order to safely ease physical distancing measures and help societies return to their functional states. However, public health experts have warned of the very real possibility of a second outbreak. Until a vaccine is developed, widespread testing and community tracking are key strategies that can be implemented to curb the spread and minimize the impact of a second wave.


Accessibility continues to be one of the biggest barriers in the testing process. Health care systems are struggling to expand on their testing capabilities as they are currently relying on large hospital-based or public health laboratories for processing. This introduces challenges such as sample routing from patient to lab, long wait times of 2-5 days and a need for specialized equipment and technical staff, increasing the risk of viral spread. To overcome these barriers and achieve national testing goals, there is a global need for simple, point-of-care testing that can be used by anyone, anywhere.

Atlas: A portable COVID-19 diagnostic test

We’re leveraging our portfolio of technology and experience to develop a single-use, portable diagnostic test called Atlas. With a simple, saliva-based test, Atlas will be able to detect viral infection in real-time and enable testing to be performed outside of centralized settings such as labs, clinics and hospitals. By combining years of advancements we have made in nanotechnology, biochemistry and microfluidics, we’re developing a test that will provide a high degree of sensitivity and selectivity for accurate COVID-19 testing.


Affordable testing for everyone. Similar to a pregnancy test or glucose test, Atlas will eliminate the need for complex and expensive equipment, making it accessible for both clinical and personal use.  


Real-time results. Powered by your smartphone, Atlas will be able to process a saliva sample and upload lab-quality test results to an app in under 20 minutes.

Efficient contact tracing. Users will have the option to share individual test results with public health databases to allow for seamless infection tracking and tracing in communities.


Versatile testing. Atlas will be able to test for a variety of different viral biomarkers, including viral antigens and antibodies. This versatility will enable greater test functionality as additional clinical evidence emerges, and allow us to test for both active and prior viral infections.


It is widely supported that rapid, widespread testing is vital in containing current and future outbreaks of COVID-19. Atlas will fill an important void in the current testing space, providing affordable testing and lab-quality results in point-of-care settings. Better screening procedures for front-line workers, community-driven contact tracing measures, safe back-to-work programs, and traveler screening protocols are just some of the many areas that portable diagnostic testing can be implemented to empower economies to safely reopen.

As we await the development of a vaccine, the need for innovation and creativity is vital in advancing new solutions that will help us safely begin life after a pandemic. With the grants awarded by the Government of Canada, Nicoya and other organizations have the opportunity to expedite a variety of solutions that will not only help us meet global testing needs for containing COVID-19, but also enable us to combat future pandemics.


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