GREENVILLE — A small medical tech company on the second floor of a historic brick building in downtown Greenville masterminded the software that kept Clemson University open during the coronavirus pandemic.
The company — Rymedi — doesn't treat diseases. It doesn't test patients. No doctors work there.
Rymedi's place in health care, said its CEO and co-founder, David Stefanich, is to "administer wellness," and it does so by deploying a cutting-edge database structure to track patient care in real time.
Seated in his Main Street office behind a desk he fashioned out of an old oak door, Stefanich explained that "blockchain" underpins Rymedi's platform.
With blockchain, Rymedi can share information about patients, privately and simultaneously to everyone who needs to know — and only those who need to know. The company's software is written to navigate federal laws protecting student information and health care records while also alerting authorities about infectious disease outbreaks for public health reasons, said Stefanich's colleague and Rymedi co-founder, Jason Cross.
Partnering with Rymedi, Clemson University has been able to catch and contain hundreds of positive cases on the university’s campus within hours. The university hired Rymedi in September to handle its coronavirus testing data.
To his knowledge, Rymedi is the only company using blockchain in the medical records field, Stefanich said.
“It provides greater visibility through the care process,” Cross added.
It also speeds it up.
Blockchain came into existence around 2009 as the database structure that supports Bitcoin currency. But the concept, which works somewhat like a series of related and shared online documents that people with administrative rights can track and amend as needed, is rapidly expanding to other industries.
Mark Blenner, a biomolecular engineering professor at Clemson, said Rymedi made a "1,000 percent" difference to the university's COVID response.
The task has been massive, with up to 3,000 people getting tested daily in the weeks just before Thanksgiving break, and more to come as testing expands in January. The technology firm is tasked not only with tracking test results but also tracking that everyone who needs to be tested is indeed showing up. Their system had to be simple to use and the stakes were high, with more than 30,000 people living, studying and working in close proximity.
There was also a football season that only rock-solid testing and reporting could salvage.
Blenner partnered with fellow bioengineering professor Delphine Dean over the summer to set up a federally certified testing lab that today can process up to 9,000 tests a day.
"We never doubted ourselves on the lab side that we could handle the samples," Blenner said. "It was always about getting the right information to DHEC, and the right information to doctors, and getting the right information to patients."
The communication piece, he said, was scary.
"We really thought it could collapse the whole thing," Blenner said. "Rymedi showed up and already had a solution for that."
Stefanich's wife, Joy, is a Clemson graduate, and the couple met in 1997 while she was doing an internship at British American Tobacco in Georgia where he was a research chemist. It was his wife's connection to the Upstate that drew Rymedi to Greenville from the company's former headquarters in Raleigh two years ago. The Stefanichs have four daughters, ages 12 to 20, and he said he wanted to live in a place where he could "be a dad."
Stefanich reached out to Clemson University in August to let them know about Rymedi's digital platform. Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Rymedi was best known in medical tech circles for its ability to track and transmit hepatitis test results from one of the world's hardest to reach areas: rural Mongolia. By employing online browsers, as opposed to smart-phone apps, Rymedi's platform works on older devices, LG cell phones and Blackberries, more common in developing parts of the world.
"We are global citizens," said Stefanich, sipping a cup of Moccona instant coffee imported from Australia.
Clemson officials responded to Rymedi on Sept. 8, Stefanich said, and the reporting system went live within 48 hours.
Browser-based, mobile-friendly and able to communicate swiftly and privately to multiple stakeholders, the Rymedi software that worked in Mongolia proved remarkably well-suited for coronavirus test results. Another major client is ATC Healthcare Services, one of the nation's biggest staffing firms for nursing homes.
At Clemson, Rymedi issues "QR" codes to identify every person who takes a coronavirus test. A link to the QR code arrives via text or email to patients' mobile devices after they register online with identifying information and answer critical health questions, like whether they are diabetic or obese, or whether they have exhibited any coronavirus-related symptoms. That QR code "anonymizes" you, Cross said, and it follows you throughout your care.
Critical to the Rymedi method is matching the patient's anonymous QR code with his or her "digitally wrapped" test samples. Every test tube that collects patient saliva at Clemson is stamped with a unique code.
The testing lab at Clemson is quick, processing some samples in about four hours. Once a lab tech keys in the results, the Rymedi system blasts them to the patient and various agencies. When results are positive, for instance, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control gets the patient's phone number so that contact tracing can commence. Separately, the university gets an alert to start setting up isolation quarters if a student is infected.
The university's partnership with Rymedi was among many topics the university shared with Dr. Deborah Birx when she visited the campus in September.
Applied across the health care industry, blockchain can theoretically track treatments, and the individual components of treatments, to specific people or a population en masse, Cross said. Every conceivable variable within health care can be assigned a unique code, he said, and be monitored for its interplay with all other components of the chain. Health care capacity is not about hospital capacity, Stefanich added.
"We think in terms of wellness, not butts in beds," Stefanich said.
Blockchain technology can catch counterfeits. It can also track the efficacy of treatments and schedule follow-up treatments. The Pfizer vaccine, which must be administered twice, also requires tracking and follow-up appointments — something Rymedi's software can do.
"The testing solution is also a vaccine solution," Cross said.
The company is less than four years old and has expanded quickly with the pandemic: Revenue is up 400 percent this year, Stefanich said. With health care increasingly decentralized — something COVID has accelerated — the company's future is also bright, he said.
Post-COVID, Stefanich said, the company has projects in France (Hepatitis C), Australia (influenza) and Singapore (HIV). It is also working with authorities in rural South Carolina on a Hepatitis C eradication project.