December 14, 2021

Meet Scanwell's Head of R&D: Vivian Wang, Ph.D.

When Vivian Wang graduated from Penn State with her Ph.D. in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, she envisioned a future in academia studying cancer biology. But after nearly 10 years of training, she'd reached a turning point. “Some of the projects I was working on [during my post-doctoral training] had no end,” says Wang. “These projects were important for cancer drug development, but that process takes years,” she says. “I couldn’t see [how my work would impact] the outcome, so the projects became meaningless to me. I started to wonder, ‘Is this something I want to do for the rest of my life?’”

Shortly after completing her post-doctoral training, Wang had the opportunity to work at an in vitro diagnostics company that develops simple assays that can be performed in a doctor’s office or at home. She lead product development for easy-to-use, low-cost tests and began to feel much more fulfilled because she could see the results of her work coming into the healthcare market. Eventually, though, Wang wanted to learn more about the technical side of diagnostic tests and joined a startup to learn how antibody engineering and technology can be applied to these types of tests.

One day, Wang received a call from an old friend and former colleague, Stephen Chen (Scanwell’s founder and CEO). He wanted Wang to join him and build out the R&D team at Scanwell Health. “I really felt like everything I had learned so far I could apply to this new platform of using a smartphone to read diagnostic tests,” Wang says. The rest, as they say, is history.

Wang recently sat down with Scanwell’s marketing team to share how she uses her knowledge and previous experience to ensure Scanwell’s products are not only easy-to-use, but accurate. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What does a typical day at Scanwell look like for you and what initiatives are you currently working on?

Each day looks a little different, but it always starts with a daily team meeting. From there, I might work on some experimental design to evaluate test performance or to establish the test algorithm for the app or review data with our technology team. I usually spend some of my day reading literature or exploring new types of diagnostic tests. And, of course, dreaming up the next generation of at-home tests.

An exciting project I’ve been working on is taking an old diagnostic test, one that is usually performed in a lab, to the next level. These tests typically produce a semi-quantitative result, and we’re working to figure out how we can produce a quantitative result with our mobile app. It has been very challenging, but so far, the data looks promising.

What is the biggest challenge you face in your role as Head of R&D?

Research and development is tricky at Scanwell because we are combining a diagnostic test with a mobile phone app. Our focus right now is ensuring that our app reads a diagnostic test in an easy and accurate way, and my team and I spend a lot of time making sure that happens. There are some diagnostic tests that were originally developed to be read by a sophisticated lab instrument. One of the challenges I’ve taken on recently is to modify these types of tests so they can be used at home with our mobile app. It takes a lot of effort to create a new diagnostic test, but we have been collaborating with pioneers in this space and hope to bring this type of test to the market soon.

What is one challenge facing the diagnostics or at-home testing industry and how are you helping Scanwell overcome that challenge?

The biggest challenge is making a test that is easy to use at home. Not just the device itself, but also the app, and that’s something Scanwell does well. We have the people who know diagnostic tests and the people who know how to design a simple-to-use test that our engineers can build.

Another challenge is convincing the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) that even though the test is easy to use, the performance is accurate. We have integrated test failure alerts into our app so we can guide people to ensure they are using the test the right way. If they make a mistake that compromises the integrity of test, the fail-safe mechanisms we’ve programmed won’t allow it to be read.

What do you think the at-home test industry will look like in the next five years?

Due to COVID-19, I think there will be more at-home tests approved by the FDA. There is an opportunity for this industry to develop more tests for at-home use especially for infectious and chronic diseases. We’ve also seen how difficult it can be for people to access care, especially during the pandemic, and one way to improve that access is to develop more tests that can be performed at home.