Beyond Drive-Thrus: Why Curative Wants to Take COVID Testing to Mobile Vans and Vending Machines

Rachel Uranga

Rachel Uranga is dot.LA's Managing Editor, News. She is a former Mexico-based market correspondent at Reuters and has worked for several Southern California news outlets, including the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Los Angeles Daily News. She has covered everything from IPOs to immigration. Uranga is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and California State University Northridge. A Los Angeles native, she lives with her husband, son and their felines.

curative covid testing
Ringo Chiu/ Shutterstock

COVID-19 testing kiosks could soon be rolling out as the creator of Los Angeles' coronavirus tests looks for ways to get more residents checked for the deadly virus. The founder of Curative Inc, Fred Turner, wants everyone to have access to a test. The company behind Los Angeles' drive-thru coronavirus tests has the capacity to expand testing but said Los Angeles officials have been stymied by lack of access to state and federal funds. Turner, whose tests have a 10% false negative rate, says the reason testing has become difficult have to do with getting them to the populations most at risk, and getting funding to where it's most needed.

Turner talked to dot.LA about the challenges locally and across the country.


Should everyone be able to get a test?

If there's a potential exposure event and somebody wants to get checked to know (whether) they need to quarantine or are they safe to work or be around a loved one, it's very important they have access to that service. Anybody who wants to get tested should get tested. It's not a lab capacity issue, certainly not in L.A..

Priority should be to symptomatic individuals, but we see asymptomatic spread is definitely a key part of the pandemic.

In L.A. city data we've seen about 40% of new infections are in individuals who self identify as asymptomatic. Many of those are pre-symptomatic. Most people do have some symptoms, even if they're mild, but truly asymptomatic cases that never develop any symptoms are quite rare. Many people are infectious and spreading the virus prior to the onset of symptoms. In fact, the day prior to the onset of symptoms is the most infectious day.

The Trump administration wants to have 100 million tests a month by September. Is that feasible?

Potentially. That's one hell of a lift right now. The country is struggling to even get to where we are at right now — at a 10th of what they want to see.

You add a 10x and the supply chain will break all over again. We are already seeing the system bursting at the seams right now.

How much capacity do you have?

We can go up to 100,000 tests per day right now. Our current goal is 1 million a week, by sometime in August.

Curative Inc. founder Fred Turner.

How do you get people back to work? Back to live events?

Well, we need a vaccine. Basically, at this point that's the only only thing that will completely turn this around. And that's on the horizon, but it will take some time and there'll be bottlenecks in scaling up as well. Until then, we have targeted lockdowns of areas. But you need to find where the outbreaks are located in very targeted areas. (That's) not really something that's happening right now and it should be — along with widespread testing and of course wearing a mask.

Contact tracing has gotten a lot better but it still has a long way to go to actually be as useful as it could be.

We have an antigen test now from a blood sample that we are piloting at some of the L.A. sites. They have generally proved to be really quite accurate, though there are some cases that we've seen of individuals who've been asymptomatic or had mild cases who don't develop antibodies.

There's been criticism of Los Angeles saying that some people aren't able to get tested. How do you respond?

The city of Los Angeles has been a really great partner in making sure that we can make testing available to as many people as possible, but they're not getting the funding that they really need to scale that program.

It really needs to be two to three times larger. We're seeing people trying to get appointments and it takes two or three days or they just aren't able to get one. Funding needs to be there so that anybody who wants to get a test can get a test within a day. Right now, we're seeing very high positivity rates across California. The chance of somebody being potentially exposed to SARS COVID 2 is a very real risk for anybody living in California.

Do you think that the country has the capacity to get kids back to school safely and to test them?

Right now in the country, we barely have the capacity to test the amount of people who want to get tested. There is certainly a lot of expansion work that needs to happen to be able to offer widespread screening.

We are continuing to scale up and anticipate hitting 100,000 a day in the next couple of weeks. But the country needs millions of tests per day.

What percentage of the market are you testing right now?

Well, 60,000 tests a day is about 10% of the market right now. We're hoping the rest of the market will continue to scale up as well… A lot of labs have greater than five day turnaround testing right now and obviously makes it challenging. If you don't get the results back fast, they're a lot less useful.

Can you make it any faster?

It can be made somewhat faster. But the larger component has to be shipping time. So we focus on keeping the lab time under 24 hours. And then decreasing the shipping time. Some of the other labs take multiple days for lab processing. We've been focused more on how we can get samples to the lab quickly. So, putting samples on cargo commercial flights to get into the lab the same day.

We have also been experimenting with other methodologies of getting tests to us other than just the walkthrough and the drive-thrus. We have mobile vans in Los Angeles that we are working with. We're working on a project to have a semi automated vending machine kiosk type service that could be deployed across cities.

What are the kiosks and why are you considering that?

The drive thrus have been great for big cities where they have the staff and the space to put something like that (together), but it's been challenging for some of the smaller cities to really deploy testing — even the larger cities. You reach a point where the entire fire department is deployed to do testing. That's not feasible for the long term. We've been trying to figure out ways where we can keep testing going without consuming too many of the city's resources, and also to reach neighborhoods that may not have easy access to testing.

Curative's offices

Are you looking at it in Los Angeles?

We are looking at sites in Los Angeles and in the Bay Area. So we're working with the city of L.A. right now on the mobile testing unit to deploy that to the most useful places to target hot spots.

What are the bottlenecks in scaling testing as the caseload grows? Do you see a kiosk in every supermarket?

Until there is a vaccine, we need to have more rigorous testing to return people to work. We're not seeing any lab bottlenecks right now. We have more capacity and continue to take on new states and counties to scale our testing. The bottlenecks are really in two places. First, the logistics of actually getting a test kit out to people, doing the collections and getting it back again.

One of the challenges in California, testing is very fragmented right now, and in some cases it's led by counties and some cities. There isn't really a statewide plan to push that out.

The other bottleneck is funding. There's a massive amount of funding available in the CARES Act that doesn't necessarily trickle down to the counties to deploy.

What do you mean it's fragmented? How has that played out?

We have to set up separate arrangements for every single small city, fire department and police department one by one. It is a very slow process. Whereas in some states, the states have come in and contracted [services]. it's a much more efficient process to roll it out that way.

There are tens of billions of dollars in the CARES Act that has gone to states but it isn't trickling down. They're apportioned based on population with every state, getting a minimum of $1.25 billion. It's not getting down to the counties and the cities.

Does that mean that counties and cities aren't deploying testing as much as they should?

Absolutely. They are limited right now because the budget for testing is insufficient for the scale that's needed. That's one of the reasons we've worked with the city of Los Angeles to transition their testing to post billing to insurance. But, the insurance billing cycle is slow and long. It adds a lot of complexity to our process.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Robot Bartenders, Space Construction and a Weight Loss App: Highlights From Techstars’ LA Demo Day

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

Robot Bartenders, Space Construction and a Weight Loss App: Highlights From Techstars’ LA Demo Day

On Wednesday, Techstars’ fall 2022 class gathered in Downtown Los Angeles to pitch their products to potential investors in hopes of securing their next big funding round. dot.LA co-sponsored the demo day presentation alongside Venice-based space news website Payload.

Managing director Matt Kozlov explained that unlike previous years, this year Techstars combined two cohorts, merging its space accelerator program and Los Angeles program into one demo day. The result was a comprehensive pitch day where investors, founders and press could hear from 12 creative and intriguing companies working across a variety of industries.

What’s new in space startups

On the space side, two local firms were introduced, including Fenix Space, a San Bernardino startup that got off the ground in 2017 and is looking to wrestle control of the commercial air launch market away from local rival Virgin Orbit.

Fenix Space has a different model of air launching rockets than Virgin; instead of strapping the rockets to a large plane like Virgin does, it plans to tow them through the air. During the Techstars demo day Fenix CEO Jason Lee told Payload co-founder Ari Lewis that Fenix conducted one sub-orbital test flight last year, and is working on making a second craft that will be tested at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range by second quarter of next year.

During his pitch Lee said, he sees a wide variety of tow launch applications including terrestrial logistics (think an alternative to ground shipping for e-commerce, as one example) but noted, “we're starting with space because corporations and governments looking to put assets into space are relying on ground launch operations from only five orbital space points in the United States… . As a result, the wait time to launch is up to two years, customers are subject to fixed schedules, are being delivered to limited orbital destinations, and are often delayed weeks or even months.”

Lee said Fenix’s crafts can carry 75 times more payload per launch and can launch payloads to orbit 1000 times faster than its competitors. The company has raised $9 million in funding over five years, said Lee and has memorandums of understanding with “major commercial customers” that account for at least $32 million in potential revenue. He also noted Fenix has existing partnerships with the Air Force Research Lab and commercial space operations support agreement with Vandenberg Space Force Base.

Fenix also has a Space Act Agreement with NASA to develop its tow-glider launch platform and an exclusive license agreement with the agency.

man explaining space tech Fenix Space CEO Jason Lee. Photo: Fenix/Techstars LA

In Orbit Aerospace CEO Ryan Elliot was clearly passionate about the company’s mission to make manufacturing in space as easy as possible. “Today, the only way to manufacture in space and recover products back on Earth is through the International Space Station,” Elliot said. Elliot is betting that In Orbit can help reduce the high wait times and correspondingly spiking costs of space manufacturing by helping customers set up their own space factories.

All of which is a tall order, but not as far-fetched as it might seem. In Orbit developed a custom orbital satellite it calls the Haven Shepherd to launch customers’ cargo to space for manufacturing. Once the mini-factory is operational, In Orbit’s second module, a capsule called the Haven Retriever, will bring raw materials to the factory and swap that payload for the new, finished product to return it back to earth.

Elliot also noted the company is the only one trying to tackle the challenge of building a permanent orbital station that can interface with Earth, and has some $180 million in potential contracts in the pipeline. Adding that In Orbital has a Space Act Agreement with NASA and is planning a test mission as soon as 2024.

Apps focused on food and drink

One overarching theme of this year’s Techstars LA cohort was a focus on the food and beverage industries, as well as the intersection those industries have with the healthcare market.

Rotender was one of the splashier startups in this Techstars cohort, because, well, who doesn’t think the phrase “robot bartender” sounds cool. Sure, this robot won’t listen to you gripe about your partner during happy hour, but it will pour you a G&T in under 30 seconds. At least, that’s the gist pitched by CEO Ben Winston.

Rotender could work a large private event, but Winston said the company’s focused on getting into sports stadiums and entertainment venues. Capitalizing on the one thing all fans hate – long lines for concessions – Rotender is aiming to convince venues that spending $35,000 annually on a robot to pour drinks is worth the spend. “One Rotender unit operating 18 or more hours a week will earn a venue over $700,000 a year in drink credit,” Winston said, adding that it could also save a venue over 175,000 annually in spillage fees.

On the business-to-business side, Techstars-backed app Bevz is trying to “save your local convenience store,” as CEO Jason Vego put it. Bevz is basically an order management system for bodegas that helps them avoid running out of top-selling products. The app syncs with the store’s custom point of sale system and sends users notifications to purchase more products before it runs out. It also consolidates input from various delivery apps to give the store a clear picture of what is sold and how frequently.

“These stores are constantly running out of products that their customers want to buy, leading to $50 billion in lost revenue every year,” Vego said. “Most stores don't have any technology… this [platform] is a game-changer.

powerpoint explaining growth in company Bevz CEO Jason Vego pitches his app for convenience stores. Photo: Bevz/Techstars LA

Startups targeting mental and physical wellness

While a number of local startups backed by TechStars are looking to innovate in the food and beverage market, two in particular were focused on fitness coaching.

Founded by Liz Dickinson in 2020, San Diego-based wellness app Relish Life is an app-based clinic that connects people with clinicians for medication-assisted weight loss therapy supplemented by mental health treatment. Dickinson said during her pitch that Relish participants reported “11% body weight lost by six months compared to only 5% in 12 months, twice the weight in half the time of our competitor and we've clinically validated that the weight stays off,” Dickinson said. “Anything that stress triggers, we can treat,” she added, noting the platform could be used to help modify other unhealthy behaviors like smoking or even possibly addiction.

Another wellness-focused app pitching at the demo day was Liberate, a Brentwood-based coaching app focused on mental fitness. CEO Olivia Bowser said during her pitch that she quit her “dream job” six years ago after quickly burning out. The experience prompted her to found Liberate, which companies can choose as a benefit for their workers.

The platform works by connecting people with counselors and guided stress management and wellness exercises to complete throughout the day. There’s also a Slack channel for team-wide guided wellness exercises and morale boosting. “At less than two years old, we've serviced hundreds of companies through monthly and annual contracts… [and] helped nearly 5,000 employees feel happier and more productive at work,” Bowser said.

Derek Jeter’s Arena Club Knocked a $10M Funding Round Right Out of the Park

Kristin Snyder

Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.

sports trading cards
Arena Club /Andria Moore

Sports trading card platform Arena Club has raised $10 million in Series A funding.

Co-founded by CEO Brian Lee and Hall of Fame Yankees player Derek Jeter, Arena Club launched its digital showroom in September. Through the platform, sports fans can buy, sell, trade and display their card collections. Using computer vision and machine learning, Arena Club allows fans to grade and authenticate their cards, which can be stored in the company’s vault or delivered in protective “slabs.” Arena Club intends to use the new cash to expand these functions and scale its operations.

The new funding brings Arena Club’s total amount raised to $20 million. M13, defy.vc, Lightspeed Ventures, Elysian Park Ventures and BAM Ventures contributed to the round.

“Our team is thankful for the group of investors—led by M13, who see the bright future of the trading card hobby and our platform,” Lee said in a statement. “I have long admired M13 and the value they bring to early-stage startups.”

M13’s co-founder Courtney Reum, who formed the early-stage consumer technology venture firm in 2016 alongside his brother Carter Reum, will join Arena Club’s board. Reum has been eyeing the trading card space since 2020 when he began investing in what was once just a childhood hobby.

The sports trading card market surged in 2020 as fans turned to the hobby after the pandemic brought live events to a standstill. Since then, prices have come down, though demand remains high. And investors are still betting on trading card companies, with companies like Collectors bringing in $100 million earlier this year. Fanatics, which sells athletic collectibles and trading cards, reached a $31 billion valuation after raising $700 million earlier this week. On the blockchain, Tom Brady’s NFT company Autograph lets athletes sell digital collectibles directly to fans.

As for Arena Club, the company is looking to cement itself as a digital card show.

“Providing users with a digital card show allows us to use our first-class technology to give collectors from all over the world the luxury of being able to get the full trading card show experience at their fingertips,” Jeter said in a statement.

Airbnb Is Expanding Short-Term Rentals in LA, but Hosts Likely Still Won’t Profit

Amrita Khalid
Amrita Khalid is a tech journalist based in Los Angeles, and has written for Quartz, The Daily Dot, Engadget, Inc. Magazine and number of other publications. She got her start in Washington, D.C., covering Congress for CQ-Roll Call. You can send tips or pitches to amrita@dot.la or reach out to her on Twitter at @askhalid.
LA house

L.A.’s lax enforcement of Airbnbs has led to an surge of illegal short-term rentals — even four years after the city passed a regulation to crack down on such practices. But what if hosts lived in a building that welcomed Airbnb guests and short-term rentals?

That’s the idea behind Airbnb’s new push to expand short-term rental offerings. The company is partnering with a number of corporate landlords that agreed to offer “Airbnb-friendly” apartment buildings, reported The Wall Street Journal last week. According to the report, the new service will feature more than 175 buildings managed by Equity Residential, Greystar Real Estate Partners LLC and 10 other companies that have agreed to clear more than 175 properties nationwide for short-term rentals.

But prospective hosts in Los Angeles who decide to rent apartments from Airbnb’s list of more than a dozen “friendly” buildings in the city likely won’t earn enough to break even due to a combination of high rents, taxes and city restrictions on short-term rentals. Rents on one-bedroom apartments in most of the partnered buildings listed soared well over $3,000 a month. Only a few studios were available under the $2,000 price range. If a host were to rent a one bedroom apartment with a monthly rent of $2,635 (which amounts to $31,656 annually), they would have to charge well over the $194 average price per night for Los Angeles (which amounts to $23,280 per year) according to analytics platform AllTheRooms.

Either way, residents who rent one of these Airbnb friendly apartments still have to apply for a permit through the City of Los Angeles in order to host on Airbnb.

“[..Airbnb-friendly buildings] seems like a good initiative. However, from a quick look, it seems that given the rent, Airbnb revenue wouldn’t be enough to cover all expenses if the host follows the city’s policy,” says Davide Proserpio, assistant professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business.

In addition, since L.A.’s 120-day cap on short-term rentals still applies to the buildings on Airbnb’s listing platform, that greatly limits the number of longer-term guests a resident can host. Not to mention, some of the buildings that Airbnb lists have even shorter limits – The Milano Lofts in DTLA for example only allows residents to host 90 nights a year.

Airbnb’s calculations of host earnings may be greatly misleading as well, given that the estimate doesn’t include host expenses, taxes, cleaning fees or individual building restrictions. For example, Airbnb estimates that a resident of a $3,699 one bedroom apartment at the Vinz in Hollywood that hosts 7 nights a month can expect $1,108 a month in revenue if they host year-round. But the Vinz only allows hosts to rent 90 days a year, which greatly limits the potential for subletters and a consistent income stream.

Keep in mind too that since the apartment will have to serve as the host’s “primary residence”, hosts will have to live there six months out of the year. All of which is to say, it’s unclear how renting an apartment in an “Airbnb-friendly” building makes hosting easier — especially in a city where illegal short-term rentals already seem to be the norm.

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