Rackspace Co-Founder Weston Looks To Disrupt COVID-19 Testing With Community Labs
After his own battle against the coronavirus, Weston funded a project aiming to allow children in San Antonio to safely return to school. ‘I think the tech community is naturally looking for disruptive ideas to change how things are done,’ Weston tells CRN. ‘If there’s ever a time we need new ideas, it’s now.’
Around midnight on March 23, Rackspace founder and former CEO Graham Weston drove to the airport to pick up his son, who had been doing an internship in England before the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
Weston, who led the San Antonio-based server hosting company through its pioneering efforts in the cloud market, had no idea on the drive back that his asymptomatic son, who immediately went into quarantine at the family home, was COVID-19 positive.
For Weston, the disease was more brutal; Rackspace’s longtime leader became extremely sick for a week, all the time frightened as a neighbor had just died of the coronavirus and how lethal it was was still largely unknown.
After another month of fatigue, Weston recovered, then dedicated himself to applying the disruptive, out-of-the-box thinking gained from almost two decades at the helm of Rackspace to tackling the nation’s most pressing economic and health problem.
That work led to the founding of Community Labs, a nonprofit aiming to solve one of the crisis’ daunting challenges: safely bringing kids back to school.
On Wednesday, Community Labs tested 1,000 students and faculty at the San Antonio Somerset School District for COVID-19 using innovative techniques that can be replicated across the country. “It’s a big day for us,” Weston told CRN just before that process began.
The project was born a few weeks after Weston recovered, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asked him to join a committee called “The Governor‘s Strike Force to Open Texas” that was examining how to reopen the Lone Star State’s economy effectively and avoid another shutdown.
Scientists were telling Weston that until a vaccine was available, only extensive testing would enable the committee to meet its goal.
The reason, Weston came to understand, was people like his son were spreading the disease to people like himself without ever showing symptoms.
“The big danger with COVID is it goes exponential really quickly, and that’s because of asymptomatic people,” Weston told CRN. “To me, this made COVID so different from the flu, because if you have a lot of people walking around infecting people without symptoms, how do you contain the spread?”
Weston started brainstorming with the leaders of state agencies and other philanthropists about forming a new testing lab.
In July, he and two friends pooled $2.5 million and launched the nonprofit in cooperation with the University of Texas Medical School in San Antonio and BioBridge Global, an organization that runs the city’s largest blood bank.
The lab opened last week with a capacity to run 12,000 tests a day, and another donation from a third philanthropist should ramp that up to 25,000.
But more important than doing a lot of tests is getting their results back fast. “The core problem we have is testing speed,” he told CRN.
PCR tests, the most reliable method, take on average five days to come back, making them largely worthless.
Community Labs delivers results in 19 hours—the fastest for PCR in the country. And those tests cost $35 a pop, about one-quarter of the standard price.
Those benchmarks will make it possible to routinely test all children in San Antonio, starting with disadvantaged communities that have less access to the internet for remote learning.
Weston hopes San Antonio’s schools will become the safest in the country, and the nonprofit will help other communities launch similar projects.
Community Labs was able to drive down PCR costs while accelerating the process, Weston said, using an open-source model that allows the facility to take advantage of inexpensive and abundant off-the-shelf gear.
“We have suffered tremendously from slow testing speed because of shortages of proprietary testing supplies,” he said.
Solving the problem of not being able to use simple test tubes and swabs with proprietary machines was Stacey Gabriel, senior director of the genomics platform at the Broad Institute in Boston.
“Stacey Gabriel came up with the design using standard lab equipment to get much higher throughput,” Weston said. “We copied it and now we have no bottlenecks. She changed the game; she broke the paradigm.”
Weston, who served as Rackspace CEO until 2014 and executive chairman of the board until the company was privatized through a sale to Apollo Global Management in 2016, still stays in close touch with the company’s leadership, including CEO Kevin Jones.
Jones, who leads the recently rebranded Rackspace Technology, which had another IPO earlier this year, said it’s not a surprise to see his predecessor leading the effort to fight the virus and bring kids back to school.
“Creative innovation is at the heart of everything he does,” Jones told CRN. “Community Labs is the result of Graham identifying a problem and bringing together the right partners to implement a solution. I am a huge Graham fan, and we’ll be rooting for him.”
Rackspace is eager to use the new lab to test its employees once there’s excess capacity, Weston told CRN.
More innovation will come over the next five years around mass testing, Weston said, which will prepare the country better for the next pandemic. And there’s a large role for tech leaders to play by leveraging the industry’s culture of creative problem-solving.
“I think the tech community is naturally looking for disruptive ideas to change how things are done,” Weston said. “If there’s ever a time we need new ideas, it’s now.”
Weston said his efforts to combat the pandemic are in line with a tradition at Rackspace of giving back to the community.
One of his proudest moments as CEO was when the company opened a former Montgomery Wards store in San Antonio it had purchased to expand its office footprint to house 2,500 Hurricane Katrina refugees for six weeks in 2005.