As a child, Julie Brazil, ’03, underwent numerous orthopedic surgeries at Nemours Children’s Specialty Care, Jacksonville. The experience shaped her interest in healthcare and inspired a strong desire to make a real impact on patient care and outcomes.
As co-founder and chief operating officer of Gravity Diagnostics in Covington, Kentucky, Brazil is doing just that. Enhancing patient care by providing timely and accurate test results to healthcare providers is indeed making that impact. By the end of 2020, Gravity was processing an average of 20,000 COVID-19 tests each day and up to 30,000 tests per day for over 800 clients across more than 40 states. The tests come from hospitals, long-term care facilities, correctional facilities, public health departments, independent provider offices and universities, including UNF, Brazil’s alma mater. Despite the volume of work, Gravity Diagnostics has maintained impressive turnaround times: 95% of the COVID-19 tests are reported out within 24 hours of receipt.
“The stories we were hearing about waiting 10-14 days for results were heartbreaking,” Brazil said. “With families separated from loved ones, unable to visit or say final goodbyes, I could not help but think of patients I had cared for, knowing what that is like for them,” she said. “Getting a fast turnaround time, sometimes the same day and almost always within 24 hours, makes a huge impact on the patient and their loved ones. It also helps providers properly allocate resources, including frontline workers, PPE, beds, etc., which are precious right now with everything in short supply and COVID cases continuing to climb.”
Brazil is especially pleased to be able to provide those fast COVID test results to UNF, where her journey began. “I am proud of the response and proactive approach that UNF took very early on to keep students and faculty safe,” said Brazil, commenting that the quick planning was a testament to the forward thinking and outside-of-the-box approach that UNF ingrains in its students. “Julie had us up and running quickly,” said Dr. Curt Lox, dean of the Brooks College of Health. “The company has been very responsive to our needs. And it has been pretty cool to see an Osprey providing this critical service, not only to us, but to companies throughout the country.”
Brazil graduated from UNF in 2003 with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology. Deciding that she needed medical experience as well, she earned her nursing degree through a night program offered by Florida State College of Jacksonville, so she could spend days with her children, then one and three years old. After several years of work as a hospital nurse and later an independent healthcare consultant, Brazil connected with her now business partner, Tony Remington, co-founder and chief executive officer of Gravity Diagnostics. When the two began a consulting job with a lab in Kentucky, they saw an opportunity and bought the company’s assets. That was in July 2016.
Prior to COVID-19, Gravity Diagnostics was primarily focused on toxicology testing and pharmacogenomics testing to help combat the opioid epidemic. In 2018, the company added infectious disease testing including upper respiratory diagnostics, so when COVID-19 hit, the lab was positioned to readily add it to their existing platform. Gravity was just starting to turn the profitability corner when the pandemic began early in 2020. Brazil admits it was a risk to “go all in” on COVID-19 testing, with no guarantees that the over half-million-dollar investment in additional equipment would pay off, but the disparity between the testing need and testing capacity was not something she could turn her back on.
To begin, the lab set a goal of 500 tests a day, to ensure a turnaround time under 48 hours. The demand was so great, that it jumped to 1,000, then exploded to 10,000 and beyond. Brazil’s team continues to look for creative ways to increase efficiencies in order to help the most people, including knocking out walls to create more space, developing their own testing method and investing in artificial intelligence.
Nearly one year since that initial decision, the small Kentucky lab has grown exponentially, not only in sample volume, but across all areas. In less than 12 months, the employee payroll has increased more than 500%, square footage has increased from 5,000 square feet to over 50,000, and operation shifts run seven days a week beginning early when the first tests are delivered until midnight. To date, Gravity Diagnostics has tested more than 2 million COVID-19 samples.
With vaccine distribution underway, Brazil has received many questions about what’s next for Gravity Diagnostics. She believes that COVID-19 will become a normal part of testing, similar to flu tests, and in addition to the multiple product lines offered preCOVID, Gravity has several new testing platforms previously put on hold that will fill the gap when the timing is right. Despite the business success the virus has brought, Brazil said the company and its employees are eager to get back to “normal,” and look forward to diving back into research and development projects.
Though she never anticipated such rapid growth of the company, Brazil said she always expected her journey to result in empowering both patients and providers to get the medical information they need. “The last five years have changed me a lot,” said Brazil, adding that a core belief shared by her and the Gravity Diagnostics team has been validated: that the laboratory industry not only plays a vital role in healthcare, but also can help enhance overall wellness. “There’s so much more we know we can do to change peoples’ lives,” Brazil said. “We are more bullish than ever, and we have no intention of slowing down.”