When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Peter Foley was at home in Ireland. The chief executive and founder of LetsGetChecked usually divides his time between Ireland and the United States, managing the growth of the at-home testing company that has taken off on the other side of the Atlantic.
Chief operations officer Ronan Ryan was in the airport, about to board a flight from the US, when word came through that the Trump administration was halting travel from the EU. If he got on the plane, there was a good chance that it would be some time before he could come back.
“He was asking: ‘Do I get on the plane? Do I stay here? Does one of us need to be here?’ We made the call that he was to get on the plane,” said Foley. “All the hard work had been done and we were fortunate that we were able to stay in Ireland and manage through this process.”
The last few months have been somewhat of a rollercoaster for the company.
It has raised $71 million, helping to fund its push to bring at-home Covid-19 testing to customers, offering it to frontline staff in the US from May, and last month rolling out the testing service in Ireland – something Foley said the company felt “ethically obliged” to do.
But it was far from a starring role in the Covid-19 pandemic that LetsGetChecked was born.
The company, which offers health screening for everything from diabetes and hormonal testing to sexual health tests, was founded by Foley in 2014. Although the sexual health screening was where the company started out, by the time it moved into the US market it had already matured into an all-encompassing health diagnostics platform.
The pandemic has thrown a new spotlight on the company, with Foley describing 2020 as “a year like no other”.
Back in the earlier days of the Covid-19 pandemic, LetsGetChecked offered its expertise to the Irish authorities. Its high-complexity lab in the US had the capacity to process 30,000 Covid samples per day, and the company wanted to make some of this available to health authorities here.
There were obvious logistical issues to work out; it would mean collecting samples in Ireland and sending them overnight to the US for processing in the lab. Despite that, the wait time would have been equivalent to the turnaround time on alternative tests at the time.
The first letter was sent in mid-March, around the time the testing system was opened up and GPs could begin referring suspected cases for testing. Within a week, the waiting list had swelled to 40,000 and the testing system was creaking under the surge in demand.
Health authorities revised the criteria for testing. As a result, people found themselves removed from the waiting list – including, ironically, Foley himself. “I got a text message two weeks later to say I’d been thrown off the list,” he said. He wound up testing himself through the LetsGetChecked system.
That option was not open to others who found themselves removed from the State’s Covid testing list around the same time.
Foley says his company's offer was never taken up, despite writing again to the Department of Health, as reported in The Irish Times.
“We wrote twice to offer some of our availability and to support the Government in their efforts. It wasn’t taken up but that’s not to say that they haven’t done a great job; they have got testing up to the levels that it needs to be here. They obviously just went down an alternative route and that’s fine,” he shrugged.
“It just seemed mad, particularly when it was most acute that there was that shortage and we had this supply. But we did need to collaborate with the Government because it would have been a big operational lift to take samples out of Ireland and send them to America. It needed to be collaborative as opposed to saying ‘here look we’re gonna do this’.”
It was this lack of appetite to collaborate, Foley said, that led to the company’s decision to press ahead with plans for a laboratory here. It is expected to open this month, and the company is already recruiting for the new roles as part of a push to add 160 jobs to its Dublin workforce, including developers and engineers, as well as staff for its lab, marketing, customer solutions and sales functions.
The opening of the lab in Ireland will help fuel further growth for LetsGetChecked. It will be the first owned and operated lab that the company has in Europe and a major milestone for the business and its Irish team.
The group is also expanding internationally, adding 50 jobs overseas, bringing its total workforce to more than 650.
While Covid-19 has had a chilling effect on some businesses, for LetsGetChecked it has accelerated its plans. The laboratory would always have happened, Foley said, but the timescale was altered by the pandemic, bringing it forward by about six months.
"We would have got there eventually. When we set up the company, we used third parties for our manufacturing and shipping, and our lab in America. And we just chipped away at the supply chain until eventually we owned all of it. We've done that in North America; now that that's done, we were always going to then turn our focus back to Europe," he said. "So I'd say probably the circumstances just sped things up a little bit as opposed to necessarily driving a decision."
The company has built up its testing capacity in the US, where the rapid spread of the disease has infected more than 13.6 million people and killed 268,000.
LetsGetChecked began selling its at-home Covid-19 test directly to US consumers in May after receiving “emergency use” approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The move made sense. After being rebuffed by health authorities here, the company focused on its US market, where it had a considerable customer base and invested significantly in its infrastructure.
Not only did it have a lab there, but it had also a network of healthcare professionals to provide support services to customers.
“Our focus has been the US. We built out our own laboratory in the US, we built out our own manufacturing facilities in the US, our customer base is in the US, our doctors and nurses that provide health services to our platform are all US-focused. When Covid happened we had this big infrastructure in North America that enabled us to provide Covid testing,” Foley said.
“We got an FDA emergency use authorisation for home use based on our entire platform and how we engage customers. It was a big win for the company but it was also great for consumers over there because we were ranked the number one and the most sensitive, most accurate tests in the US from a home perspective for nasal swab.”
The company has performed more than 1.2 million Covid-19 tests since the start of the pandemic.
With the health authorities offering free testing in Ireland though, it’s a fair point to wonder exactly at whom the company’s service is aimed.
LetsGetChecked says it will provide the testing service to those who don’t meet the criteria for a test under the public health system, for example. It will also work directly with employers who are supplying essential services and want to have confidence that their workplace is free of Covid-19.
“We will need to get back to some sort of normality at some point and there will be a need for testing for people travelling to Ireland, people leaving Ireland and so it is a huge segment around the travel industry,” said Foley.
That has already begun overseas. In October, LetsGetChecked was announced as a partner for American Airlines in its new pre-flight Covid-19 testing service for passengers travelling from Dallas-Fort Worth to Hawaii.
The company’s role was to provide pre-flight testing at home, observed by a medical professional online, with test results back in an average of 48 hours. Travellers who tested negative were exempt from the state’s 14-day quarantine.
Closer to home, the adoption of the EU’s traffic light system for travel will leave others in need of a private Covid-19 test, putting LetsGetChecked in a good position to offer its services.
But the pandemic – hopefully – won’t last forever. When Foley set up the company, it was to bring routine screening to the home, keeping people out of hospitals and offering potentially life-saving diagnostic tests.
"The slogan we have internally is 'help people live longer, happier lives'. That's what we're trying to do, and make it in a way that they don't have to think about it," he said. "I always use the analogy of we've got Netflix in our home, we've Amazon in our home; I can literally order anything I want off Amazon, and healthcare should be the same."
When Covid is no longer an issue, that aim will still be there. LetsGetChecked has continued to offer its full suite of diagnostic tests during the pandemic.
The pandemic may also have changed the healthcare landscape forever, ushering in a new age of telemedicine.
“There was a big question mark over adoption and utilisation around telehealth. People thought it would happen and it would always stick. I think now it’s stuck and it needed an event like this to make it,” Foley said. “It needed something with a big bang to shake it.
“Workforces are going to operate entirely differently forever.There are organisations saying we’re never going to bring our workforce back again, ever. As a result, people are in the home or people are going to be more out in the suburbs. So services to keep those people healthy need to change.”
There may be other changes afoot. With the ban on US travel from the EU still in place eight months on, Foley has spent the time in Ireland, working on the business and spending time with his family. He has three children under the age of four, including a 10-month-old baby. Add in a house move during the summer, and it has been a busy time.
“Huge amounts of travel has turned into no travel and so I’m seeing more of my kids,” he said. “I remember when my son was born, I was back on a plane after three days; the same with my daughter, I think I was travelling the following week and I was gone for a while. When our last child was born I was around.”
Although the ink has just about dried on the Series C funding round from earlier this year, there will always be a need for more investment at some stage in the future; LetsGetChecked raised $30 million in a Series B round last year, and $12 million in 2018 in its Series A funding round. It may be a different process in a post-Covid world, where Zoom calls have taken the place of face-to-face meetings.
While many of us have come to hate video-conferencing, for Foley it has proven a valuable tool and one that has shown up how inefficient the previous set-up of face-to-face meetings was. And as someone with a full schedule, it seems any time savings that can be made are very welcome.
“It’s so full-on, but it’s where we want to be and where we thrive and what we enjoy doing. I think I’d be more worried when I’m not this busy again,” Foley said. “When you’re in a moment, you’ve just got to get on with it.”