Hundreds of thousands of people die of malaria every year, most of them in Africa. Dr. Eddy C. Agbo wants people to get diagnosed quickly and easily — right in their homes — so they can seek treatment.
The barrier to quick and easy diagnoses is that all available tests require blood. His Baltimore company is readying a version that uses urine — just like a pregnancy test. It should hit the market next year.
Agbo, chief executive of Fyodor Biotechnologies, grew up in Nigeria and envisions the malaria test as the first in a line of products that could make an impact in developing countries.
Now an American citizen, Agbo came to the country to work at the Johns Hopkins University, left to join a Hopkins spinoff company, then founded Fyodor in 2008. His company won a minority-owned business achievement award from the Greater Baltimore Committee last fall.
He talked with The Baltimore Sun recently about global health, his work and "social entrepreneurship."
How did your years in Nigeria influence your professional life? Did experiences there prompt your interest in disease diagnostics?
Very much so! I grew up in a small village called Mbu in southeast Nigeria. My experience growing up helped shape my understanding of the heavy toll of diseases in these areas. Imagine the experience of growing up in a place where there's no doctor around.
Unfortunately, even decades later, similar conditions still persist in far too many places. But even within these limitations, the environment still offered initial opportunities that helped me develop to how and where I am today.
Against this backdrop, I got to a point in my career that I started to say to myself: "Eddy, you must be able to do something about this situation; you must be able to apply your knowledge and expertise to address some [of] these challenges." That is how Fyodor Biotechnologies was born.
You have an interesting perspective on the role of for-profit firms in global health. Could you explain why you decided to go the for-profit route?
You know, there are many biotechnology discoveries that are relevant to global health diseases, such as malaria, typhoid fever, dengue fever and the like. However, one major gap is in translating these technologies to products.
So a key question for me earlier on was: How would this effort be sustainable? As I considered the options, I came to the conclusion that I can better make this social impact in a more sustainable way within an entrepreneurship model.
That is how we came to focus Fyodor's mission of doing good within the context of social entrepreneurship, and these two are not mutually exclusive. It's a do-good, do-well model.
How does your company's malaria test work, and how much do you anticipate it will cost to buy?
Fyodor's Urine Malaria Test works just like a simple pregnancy test: You dip the malaria test strip in about 10 drops of urine [and] allow it [to] stand for 20 minutes. If two lines appear on the strip, the person has malaria. If one line appears, it's not malaria.
The idea is that because it's so simple to use, anyone anywhere should be able to accurately perform the test, making it ideal in many rural areas, where the impact of malaria is greatest. We are still working out the final offering price of the test, but our goal is to offer a better deal than current blood tests, in cost of test, simplicity of use, etc.
What other diseases do you want to tackle?
Again, from my professional and childhood experiences, I know that in many developing countries (especially in Africa and Asia), many people often present with fever, and a rapid test is needed to quickly identify the cause of the fever. So we've set our eyes on developing a broad-based rapid test for fever that will use urine to identify the cause of fever from a set of six or so different diseases, something like a multi-disease rapid test.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I think most people will be surprised to discover that I'm a shy person.