This is one more example of how Silicon Valley companies are lining up collaborations with in vitro diagnostics companies to gain a foothold in the clinical laboratory marketplace

For years, Apple, Google, and other Silicon Valley companies have taken progressive steps to become more engaged in healthcare. One recent example of a Silicon Valley company willing to invest in clinical laboratory testing came last year in the form of a $10 million grant Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) made to COPAN Diagnostics of Murrieta, Calif., to increase the speed and production of the company’s COVID-19 sample collection and transport products.

The interesting aspect of this collaboration was that Apple’s primary role was to help COPAN:

  • streamline workflow and speed of throughput,
  • help with the incoming supply chain, and
  • help develop outgoing supply chain solutions—along with some capital investment.

From the start of the pandemic in the winter of 2020, SARS-CoV-2 sample collection kits were one of many items that were in short supply here in the United States. To help address those shortfalls, teams at Apple, COPAN, and multiple other companies across the US worked to improve the work processes, automation, and machinery COPAN uses in its manufacturing and production sites. This collaboration increased production by nearly 4,000%  between April 2020 and February 2021, an Apple news release reported.

Jeff Williams  Apple’s Chief Operating Officer in a blue shirt on a stage
In the news release, Jeff Williams (above), Apple’s Chief Operating Officer, said, “We are proud our Advanced Manufacturing Fund is supporting companies like COPAN who are playing a critical role in the fight against COVID-19 and assisting healthcare professionals and communities across the country. This collaboration helped produce, ship, and deliver millions of sample collection kits to hospitals from coast to coast—and we believe it is this unique combination of American manufacturing and innovation that will help us emerge from this crisis and build a safer world for us all.” (Photo copyright: Apple Insider.)

Healthcare Has Long Been a Target for Big Tech

Investment in different sectors of the US healthcare system by one of the Big Tech companies is not unusual. Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have looked for ways to expand their respective footholds in the healthcare marketplace for years.

In “How the ‘Big 4’ Tech Companies Are Leading Healthcare Innovation”—published a full year before the COVID-19 pandemic began—Healthcare Weekly noted that, “At a high level, each of the ‘Big 4’ tech companies are leveraging their own core business strengths to reinvent healthcare by developing and collaborating on new tools for patients, care providers, and insurers that will position them for healthcare domination.”

In 2017, Apple announced the launch of the Advanced Manufacturing Fund, saying that the $1 billion fund was a way to give back to communities through job creation. “By doing that, we can be the ripple in the pond. Because if we can create many manufacturing jobs around, those manufacturing jobs create more jobs around them because you have a service industry that builds up around them,” Apple’s CEO Tim Cook told CNBC at that time.

In 2018, Apple boosted the fund from $1 billion to $5 billion, the Mac Observer reported.

Apple’s $10 million investment enabled COPAN Diagnostics to expand into a new facility as well as hire 250 new employees. “We are proud our Advanced Manufacturing Fund is supporting companies like COPAN who are playing a critical role in the fight against COVID-19 and assisting healthcare professionals and communities across the country,” Williams said in the news release.

COPAN and the On-Going Need for COVID-19 Test Kits

COPAN Diagnostics was founded in 1979 in Mantua, Italy, and is now a global force in the manufacture of many sample collection and transport products such as instruments, automation, swabs, pipettes, and, of course, SARS-CoV-2 sample collection and transport kits. At the time of Apple’s investment, COPAN was producing sample collection and transport products at its Murrieta, Calif., facility. But demand for these products far outweighed the supply.

In an interview, Norman Sharples, CEO of COPAN Diagnostics and head of operations for North and South America, said he was hoping to increase production in the earliest days of the pandemic when Jeff Williams, COO at Apple, contacted him regarding the Advanced Manufacturing Fund. Along with the $10 million grant, Williams offered experts in engineering and sourcing to help COPAN increase production, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

The result was a new manufacturing facility in Carlsbad, Calif., which increased COPAN’S production of its sample collection and transport products used in SARS-CoV-2 testing by nearly 4,000%.

“From taking the keys to the building to actually getting the California department for public inspection, which allows us to go live and sell the product, that was just over 30 days, which is an incredible campaign that Apple helped us with,” Sharples told the San Diego Union-Tribune, adding, “It wasn’t just the funding. It was [the experts from Apple] applying their know-how and expertise to tilt this up very fast.”

Even as COVID-19 vaccines roll out, demand for SARS-CoV-2 tests—along with the necessary specimen collection and transport supplies—will likely continue. As the economy reopens, workers return to offices, and students return to in-person schools, precautionary screening for COVID-19 will remain necessary. “I think demand is going to flatten a little bit, but in any case, the baseline is going to be high because of surveillance,” Sharples said. “The back-to-work programs will drive more surveillance.”

Pandemic Increases Big Tech’s Dominance in Healthcare

Where many businesses and entire industries struggled with the pandemic, Big Tech apparently did not. In late October 2020, CBS News reported, “America’s largest technology companies are thriving despite the economy’s woes, according to earnings posted by Google-parent Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter on Thursday.”

Along with growing profits, Big Tech companies also consolidated their dominance. “As the pandemic made us even more dependent on digital technology, it has made the systemic importance and enormous power of the tech giants even more apparent,” according to an article in SciencesPo, titled, “Is the COVID-19 Pandemic a Victory for Big Tech?

Might Big Tech Investments Target Clinical Laboratory Testing?

There’s no reason to believe that the big technology companies will slow their investment in healthcare anytime soon, and that investment may benefit clinical laboratories. In fact, in “11 Recent Big Tech Partnerships in Healthcare,” Becker’s Hospital Review listed several technology companies that will likely affect pathology laboratories.

Big Tech investment in genetic testing, artificial intelligence, telehealth, and other technologies may alter how clinical laboratories operate and revolutionize the healthcare industry. 

—Dava Stewart

Related Information:

Apple’s Advanced Manufacturing Fund Helps COPAN Diagnostics Ship Millions of COVID-19 Test Kits

Apple Awards $10 Million from Advanced Manufacturing Fund to COPAN Diagnostics

Apple Helps Develop COVID-19 Test Kits; Boosted Output by 4,000%

How the “Big 4” Tech Companies Are Leading Healthcare Innovation

Apple Just Promised to Give US Manufacturing a $1 Billion Boost

With Apple’s Help, COPAN Diagnostics Ships Millions of COVID Sample Collection

Kits from New Carlsbad Factory

Big Tech Companies, Fully Recovered from Pandemic, Report Record Earnings

Is the COVID-19 Pandemic a Victory for Big Tech?

11 Recent Big Tech Partnerships in Healthcare