Gabriela & Francisco

Gabriela and Franco holding up a COVID-19 testing swab kit

Alumni Spotlight: Gabriela Franco & Francisco Cuerva

Critical Response

As classmates in PSU’s Business School’s Master of International Management (MIM) program, Gabriela Franco (‘06) and Francisco Cuerva (‘06) teamed on projects together. Little did they know that one day, they would work in tandem to help save lives in the face of a pandemic.

In 2008, Franco became the Marketing Director of Copan Diagnostics, Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of the global company COPAN Group based in Italy. Cuerva subsequently joined the company as its Supply Chain and Customer Service Manager. Franco says their education perfectly suited their work at the small but international company.

“PSU’s MIM program taught us entrepreneurialism - how to think from a macro perspective while taking care of whatever needs to be done no matter how small,” Franco notes. “That’s been incredibly valuable as we use these skills every day.”

Gold Standard

In 2003, COPAN invented flocked swabs, which have become a critical tool in COVID-19 testing. The swabs’ nylon fibers were a revolutionary breakthrough in clinical microbiology because they provided a better way to collect, release, and preserve sample cells – extremely important aspects of a reliable testing process. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, COPAN’s Italian manufacturing plant was one of the only two major manufacturers in the world making flocked swabs. 

“Suddenly, global demand exponentially exceeded our capacity,” recalls Cuerva. “Managing the volume of requests for tens of millions of swabs in this unprecedented situation was a new challenge. It meant a huge increase in production and shock to our supply chain.”

Although Copan Diagnostics generally operates as a wholesaler, the small privately held company found ways to streamline production.

“We looked at every possible path to help meet the demand,” Cuerva says. “Ultimately we were able to maximize supply to clinical laboratories across the U.S. by reducing redundancies in production, and by offering new and alternative products and preservation media.”

To help increase testing capacity, Copan Diagnostics teamed with different government agencies and many hospitals.

“We worked collaboratively to qualify different types of swabs and obtain approval for other sampling sites in the nose and throat,” Franco says. “We also produced sample collection videos in partnership with the CDC because if you don’t take a good sample initially, you aren’t going to have a great result,” she explains.

Hope on the Horizon

Copan Diagnostics manufactures products in the U.S., but none suited to assist with the COVID-19 crisis. In May, Apple awarded $10 million to help Copan Diagnostics add a new production facility in Southern California. Slated to open in July, the goal is to boost the availability of sample collection kit materials to more than one million per week.

“Even though we greatly increased capacity, it’s not enough,” says Cuerva. “The new facility is the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Franco’s entrepreneurial spirit remains intact, and she’s taken on an internal Project Management role for the move to the upcoming facility.

“What I like most about working here is that I’m able to make a difference,” Franco says. “We can have an impact and see the results.”