By Ed Brennen
There’s no shortage of research on how businesses respond during a time of crisis, be it a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or a financial meltdown like the Great Recession.
But how businesses respond during a once-in-a-century global pandemic isn’t as well understood.
Denise Dunlap, an assistant professor of marketing, entrepreneurship and innovation in the Manning School of Business, is hoping to fill that knowledge gap through her work on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative that aims to speed the development and commercialization of COVID-19 testing technologies.
Launched in April with $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funding, the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative is turbo-charging the efforts of scientists, inventors and companies to produce COVID-19 tests that are quick, accurate and widely accessible. The goal is to make 6 million tests available each day in the United States by December.
How does that involve a business professor? Well, it takes a few more acronyms to explain:
RADx is tapping the expertise of five centers across the country that make up the NIH’s Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network (POCTRN). One of those is the Center for Advancing Point of Care Technologies (CAPCaT), which is a partnership between UMass Lowell and the UMass Medical School and a product of their joint venture, the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2). CAPCaT is supporting local projects with more than $10 million in RADx funding.
Dunlap, who researches breakthrough innovations in the global bio-pharmaceutical industry, is part of the M2D2 executive board and the CAPCaT leadership team. As such, she was a natural fit for the RADx team.
“I’ve been in this industry for a long time, looking at new innovations and the commercialization process. But this gets me closer to the inventor than I’ve ever been before. It’s the most exciting project I’ve been on in my career,” says Dunlap, who joined the Manning School in 2017 from the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, Calif. She has also taught at Northeastern and Temple universities.
“Any time you have a crisis, there are some companies that find a way to be entrepreneurial, even when things are really bleak.”
-Manning School Asst. Prof. Denise Dunlap
So far, more than 600 developers of rapid test technologies have applied for a share of $500 million in funding from RADx, which puts them through a highly competitive “Shark Tank”-style approval process. (Several UML faculty members are part of an anonymous RADx judging pool.)
Dunlap isn’t involved in the selection process, but she is collecting data on both the “winners” and “losers.” Are they small or large companies? Are they international? Have they ever worked in disease diagnostics before, or have they pivoted because of COVID-19?
“I’m looking at this data to see what types of strategies firms are using to bring new innovations to the market — and to see if there are some unique patterns that businesses can learn from in the future,” says Dunlap, who is working on the analysis with Associate Professor of Management Scott Latham.
“Any time you have a crisis, there are some companies that find a way to be entrepreneurial, even when things are really bleak,” Dunlap says. “We’re looking at this unique group of companies that are resilient and stepping up to the challenge.”
With POCTRN supporting hundreds of investigators from institutions across the country, including Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins University, Dunlap is also working on a network analysis of the collaboration and coordination required for RADx.
“It’s a pretty amazing process how these organizations were able to band together so quickly and offer so many areas of expertise,” she says. “Being involved in it gives me a deep appreciation for the level of complexity that comes with solving a problem like this.”
Based on the lessons that are still being learned from the pandemic, Dunlap is also working on several publications. One paper is looking at the pandemic’s effect on international business. Another is on how COVID-19 has made the remote monitoring of patients more essential than ever.
“The pandemic has actually put a spotlight on CAPCaT and the importance of point of care medical devices and home monitoring,” Dunlap says. “People don’t want to go to the hospital for a simple test and possibly be exposed to COVID; they want to have it at home.”
Dunlap originally became involved with M2D2 and CAPCaT as a way to build relationships and support for Biotech East, a weeklong course for Ph.D. students and postdocs in health, science and medical programs that she has hosted the past two summers at UML.
“I didn’t know where it would take me, but it seemed like a good opportunity to foster relationships with an interdisciplinary group of people,” says Dunlap, who now finds herself part of a $1.5 billion initiative aimed at ending a global pandemic.
“How many people get access to work at this level that falls in line with their research?” Dunlap says. “I’m truly grateful for being asked to help. I want to do anything I can to help.”