Imagine sitting at your desk when you get a Slack alert from your building manager. You’re told that, while no one appears sick, COVID-19 has been detected near your cubicle.
You calmly pack up your things and head home. Over the next few days, you get tested for COVID-19. Luckily, the results are negative. But it ends up that your manager was positive—and with a heads up, she was able to get onto antivirals before the infection worsened and someone else got sick.
This is not the future of COVID-19 detection. It is the present.
Because in 2019—before COVID-19 was on anyone’s mind—entrepreneurs Sam Molyneux and Elizabeth Caley, along with microbiologist Daniela Bezdan, founded a company called Poppy.
For Poppy, the plan was to build a device that could collect the omnipresent stew of viruses floating in the air of places like hospitals and cruise ships, send them to a lab, and use DNA analysis to spot the scariest pathogens like influenza and MRSA that can make these spaces so infectious.
Then COVID-19 hit. By late 2020, Poppy launched as a subscription service—and now it’s installed in 40 locations across North America, including offices, theaters, an international airport, and a “superyacht.” While COVID-19 air detectors have been developed for the military and other specialized industries, these are expensive, industrial machines offered by companies like Smiths Detection and Kromek.
Poppy is designed more like an everyday smoke detector, but built to spot COVID-19 instead of smoke. It consists of nothing more than a router-size white box installed at various intervals around a space. “We wanted something friendly to put into a living room or onto a kitchen counter, as well as a boardroom of a Fortune 500 company,” Caley says.
Poppy continuously samples the air via a collection tray that looks a lot like a COVID-19 test strip, using static electricity to pull viruses in without a loud fan. Each day, a building manager sends these strips to a lab, where analysis is done using a highly accurate LAMP test. The methodology proved to be effective at identifying SARS-CoV-2 in previous, peer-reviewed research conducted by a team that included Bezdan and Poppy’s scientific board adviser, Chris Mason, who is an associate professor at Cornell University.
Poppy provides results via a simple online dashboard—which arrive either the same day or the next morning. The system is also capable of spotting 1000 other pathogens in the air, like the seasonal flu, for an added cost and added turnaround time of three days. (Three days, while not instantaneous, can still catch cases relatively early. The company also plans to get rapid COVID-19 detection onto its actual devices within the next year to expedite testing for everyone.) So far, most clients are testing only for COVID-19.
“We basically said, what if we could switch where biotech was focused . . . from ‘who has got what?’ to, instead, ‘what is where?'” Caley says. “Then the pandemic hit. And of course, with an airborne pathogen, it made ‘what is where?’ an urgent question for everybody.”
Perhaps this distinction sounds like a technicality, or some sort of veneer over the fact that it’s people who harbor viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and shed them into shared spaces. Shouldn’t we just constantly be testing the people?
Increasingly, we’re learning that spaces do matter—that the particulars of the built environment and its ventilation can make pathogens linger in the air, or even condense into certain nooks and crannies of a space. COVID-19 terrorized cruise ships specifically because of their design. Secondly, Poppy’s approach involves pool-testing groups of people, much as we’ve seen with group saliva tests that spot COVID-19 hot spots quickly. But instead of making people take a test, the air does the heavy lifting. So the testing is completely passive and doesn’t require debates about personal liberties. The virus, after all, is floating in common space.
You may be wondering, however, how Poppy can be so sure that it’s actually sampling all the air in a given space. Herein lies the cleverest and most sci-fi of design twists.
Poppy pumps short, lab-created DNA barcodes into the air to test its own virus detection. These are inert biological agents that Poppy nebulizes, or mists, from various locations during setup, using the same droplet size to accurately simulate human breath. (This method has previously been used by researchers to map the airflow in Boeing airplanes.) When these barcodes show up within Poppy’s system, the company knows the equipment is working as advertised.
“[These DNA barcodes] are removed and cleared by HVAC systems, diluted through fresh air and ventilation, because they circulate in these natural ways consistent with the way real viruses can circulate,” Molyneux explains. “We can count the number of DNA molecules that end up at every one of our devices, as if all are simulated viruses that run through the building.”
Not only does this approach allow Poppy to confirm that its sensors are working as intended, the findings also create highly specific airflow maps of indoor air, which can identify stagnant areas and even confirm how long it takes for a space to air out. This is information people simply don’t have before making the choice to go to a grocery store, church, or concert, leaving all of us to guess what’s best based upon murky government guidelines.
“We can say, quantitatively speaking, that 99.9% of bioaerosols can get cleared in 15 or 22 minutes at your workplace,” Molyneux says. In other words, Poppy isn’t merely a pathogen detector. It’s a tool that could test and prove the best practices of architectural ventilation at scale. Clients can see their own building ventilation clearly fed back to them as a heat map, allowing managers to move partitions and seating, or even set up localized HEPA filters to reduce hot spots. It’s easy to imagine individual businesses, like movie theaters, even advertising their Poppy audit to assuage the fears of the public.
Designed to scale
For Poppy, the technology isn’t designed to be boutique; it’s designed to be a new and integral part of our infrastructure, priced with subscriptions that start at a few hundred dollars per month and scale by the size and scope of a project. Poppy’s price should drop over time, as it eliminates the high costs of shipping test strips and using labs to analyze samples.
Poppy is growing quickly; new clients need only 48 hours to be onboarded, and in recent weeks the company’s reported installations have tripled. (It’s not Molyneux’s and Caley’s first successful venture. Their previous startup, named Meta, used machine learning to analyze research papers, and it sold to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in 2017.)
Whether or not Poppy is successful long term, it seems inevitable that something like Poppy will take off. Another startup, called Opteev, launched ViraWarn earlier this year, which is a similar, plug-in COVID-19 detector that works instantly, without third-party labs, but uses a significantly less-accurate testing methodology and lacks the capability to map pathogen flows through a space. Poppy claims to be about a year out from having immediate, on-device COVID-19 detection.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that we understand very little about how viruses are actually transmitted in the real world. Poppy offers a way of visualizing these invisible pathogens in our spaces, and a manner to fact-check our own best practices of prevention.
“You can mandate masks, demand proof of vaccines, do rapid antigen testing at the door, try and sterilize the air. There are lots of interventions that are available [and] we support whatever measures that people take to protect their communities,” Molyneux says. “What’s missing from all that . . . is that there wasn’t any way to assess, monitor, and directly optimize the effectiveness of any of these measures. We made Poppy not to replace those measures, but to make them work more effectively, and to make sure they’re working.”