Ro, a hot digital health startup best known for selling generic Viagra, is taking another big step in expanding its healthcare ambitions.
Ro is teaming up with computer vision startup Gauss to offer at-home rapid COVID-19 antigen tests that provide results in 15 minutes, the companies announced Wednesday. The test is still awaiting emergency clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration. Ro doesn’t take insurance and declined to say how much it’ll charge for the test.
The launch comes just a month after Ro announced it acquired Workpath, a startup that allows hospitals and clinics to send phlebotomists into patients’ homes to perform routine blood tests, furthering its goals to expand beyond its initial suite of mail-order pharmaceuticals for conditions such as hair loss or erectile dysfunction.
Ro’s aggressive moves into all parts of healthcare come at a pivotal moment for the industry, which has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike hospitals or clinics, Ro’s virtual care model combined with its network of real-world pharmacies and logistics makes it poised to tackle distribution for rapid tests and eventually vaccines, cofounder and CEO Zachariah Reitano told Business Insider.
“Right now there are two things universally needed in healthcare: access to the vaccine and easy access to rapid testing,” Reitano said. “We have the technology and the infrastructure to distribute tests to patients across the country, and we have the unique capability to facilitate a connection to a doctor if it requires a prescription to get the test. We can mail it to them and guide them through the next steps. Not many other companies can do that.”
Ro’s ambitions extend well beyond telemedicine
Ro started with a modest proposal: patients could virtually meet with a care provider and get generic prescription medications for conditions like hair loss or erectile dysfunction sent to their homes for a nominal fee.
Nearly four years later and the startup has skyrocketed to a $1.5 billion valuation while aggressively adding new products and services for its growing group of patients.
When the coronavirus pandemic took root, companies like Ro and its competitor Hims added new patients as doctors’ offices shuttered and people remained hesitant to venture out to a nearby pharmacy, Reitano said. The virtual care model and easy shipping appeared tailor-made for a pandemic that left most Americans house-bound.
“Growth isn’t a problem right now,” Reitano said. “We’re going to expand and add services to try and keep up with the demand of the country.”
At present, that means building specifically for the coronavirus pandemic, Reitano said. The Gauss partnership is the first step in what Reitano said was his company’s responsibility in lowering transmission rates and saving peoples’ lives.
Reitano also said Ro is interested in helping with vaccine distribution, but declined to discuss the plans.
Ro’s future lies in testing
A more ambitious future for Ro could rely heavily on building a network of traditional healthcare services instead of relying on the partnership model it’s worked on in the past, repeat healthcare founder and investor Nikhil Krishnan said.
The ability to control pricing and cut out middlemen is key to the company’s long-term success because it relies on patients paying cash for services instead of working with insurance plans. The lower Ro’s costs, the lower it can keep prices.
“Lab testing, depending on how it’s structured, can be really expensive to outsource so it makes sense to bring it in-house at some point,” Krishnan said. “Ro has been pretty ahead of the curve in bringing those pieces of the value chain in-house.”
Part of the appeal of launching an at-home COVID-19 test is that Ro can substantially cut costs of currently available at-home tests that retail for between $100 and $150 per testing kit.
“We’d like to put pressure on the market and bring the prices down across the board,” Reitano said.
To stay competitive, Ro wants to play a bigger role in its customers’ lives but needs more patient data to be effective. For instance, by offering lab tests and screenings from Workpath, it can help treat a larger variety of conditions through telemedicine and eventually in-person, Reitano said.
Krishnan said Ro is building an experience for patients in the real world after establishing a relationship with them online. Testing, and to some extent screening, can help companies like Ro gather more information on patients and better compete with physical healthcare practices.
“I don’t know if there’s necessarily a right way to strike a partnership, but I definitely think a lot of the telemedicine companies will have to figure out how to get this information eventually,” Krishnan said.
Reitano said he is eager to expand into other forms of testing with the goal of becoming what he calls a “fully integrated” primary care provider that can host virtual visits and ship a host of medications directly to patients while freeing up in-person care for those patients that truly need it.
“It’s just the beginning of us for testing,” Reitano said.