The top lieutenant at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s global health fund is joining the board of Australia’s Atomo Diagnostics after the fund took an equity position in the medical device company.
Atomo, which has developed a rapid blood test for infectious and chronic diseases, had previously received a $US6 million ($8.3m) loan from the Global Health Investment Fund, set up by the Gates Foundation and JPMorgan. But the fund has now gone a step further with an equity stake and a board seat at the Sydney-based company.
“We believe this is a company that can have a major impact, and it will be something Australia will be extremely proud of,” said GHIF president Curt LaBelle, who will join the Atomo board.
Atomo chief executive John Kelly said having the head of the GHIF on the board of a “relatively small” Australian company was a huge tick of confidence and credibility for Atomo.
“It’s a real tick of approval that the technology has significant momentum behind it,” he said.
“These guys are prepared to not only loan us money but invest in the business and come on the board. That is incredibly powerful for a company like us that is trying to grow internationally.”
Billionaire developer Lang Walker is also a significant backer, with a 27 per cent stake.
Mr Walker said he was pleased to see the business moving closer to realising its “significant” commercial value and the full potential of its innovative rapid diagnostic testing solutions.
“Atomo is an excellent example of Australian innovation that will help transform the health and lives of millions of people in both the developing world and developed markets,” Mr Walker said.
Set up in 2010, Atomo has developed a simple-to-use test for HIV, malaria and ebola that given its low cost and design are suited to the developing world.
It plans to launch an at-home HIV test in Africa later this year and then in Australia next year.
The company, which developed its technology in Australia, has also just received a federal government grant of $1.2m to develop the world’s first combination device to test for mosquito-borne viral diseases dengue fever and chikungunya.
Mr Kelly said the past six years had seen the company put in the “hard yards” to develop the technology, get market recognition and build partnerships, and it was now through the “valley of death” and into the high-growth phase.
He said the company’s platform was flexible and it was working with other companies to commercialise products in developed markets to tackle chronic disease such as cholesterol and vitamin B screening.
“We are more than a one-trick pony, we have technology that is applicable to developed markets with higher returns as well,” Mr Kelly said. “The platform can be accommodated to support different types of diagnostic testing, and we can enter into agreements on a disease by disease basis. We are in discussions with a couple of very large listed companies who are interested in the technology and the fact it is disruptive, especially in consumer testing.”
Mr LaBelle said there was a significant need globally for at-home, or point-of-care, tests.
He said the test Atomo had designed for HIV was developed with a manufacturing process that enabled it to be priced lower than other products in the market, making it accessible for developing countries.
“That can also be applied to a number of other tests in developed countries where profit margins are much higher,” Mr LaBelle said. “We see this as a platform that can be used widely and think it has great potential.”
Mr Kelly said the support of GHIF gave the company confidence in future funding options but he would consider a market listing when appropriate.
He added that he did not want to be an Australian start-up that listed purely to get its hands on some money: “We have got access to private and global health money, so we can grow better unlisted and then list once we have delivered the most efficient growth in shareholder value. Then we can list in a more controlled and sustainable manner.”
By Sarah-Jane Tasker