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April 13, 2021
Authentic: Dr. Stephen Tang, OraSure Technologies
Stephan S. Tang, PhD has been the president and CEO of OraSure Technologies since 2018, though he joined the board in 2011—and has watched the company grow since he was a graduate student at Lehigh University in the 1980s. After he received his PhD in chemical engineering, he was manager of Lehigh’s biotechnology research center, where OraSure’s predecessor was in residence. “To see that company morph into what’s now OraSure Technologies”—a medical diagnostic company headquartered on Bethlehem’s south side, responsible for the first over-the-counter HIV test and now developing an at-home COVID test—“has been pretty spectacular,” says Dr. Tang. When he thinks back to the beginning of the company, “it’s kind of like I was this kid riding my bike past the candy store, not knowing that some day I could actually run the candy store.”
He certainly never imagined he’d run it during a pandemic—and a moment when OraSure’s proven innovations could make a truly global difference. He has a BS in chemistry from the College of William and Mary and an MBA from The Wharton School of Business, has served as president and CEO of The University City Science Center, an urban research center and business incubator in Philadelphia, and held senior management positions with Olympus America, Millennium Cell, and A.T. Kearney. But nothing quite prepared anyone for the challenges of 2020. “There was no class,” he says, “on how to lead a company during a pandemic. A lot of us are just trying to figure this all out, with all the experience and gumption we have.”
The son of immigrants from China, both accomplished scientists in their own right, Dr. Tang and his family lived in the Lehigh Valley from 1982 to 2013; his attachment to and investment in the region is deep. “Bethlehem’s a very special place for all of us,” he says. “I’m really pleased that OraSure can elevate Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley. We try to take people along with us on our journey and in our success, and I hope that’s what we can do for the community.”
Fig was honored to sit down with Dr. Tang recently. What follows is an edited conversation:
OraSure developed the first at-home HIV test. How did your experience with that test prepare you for the challenge of COVID 19?
In many ways we’re the underdog in this combined industry effort to create an at-home test, but we have a set of experiences that others don’t: we sell an over the counter product already. The OraQuick® lateral flow platform has been around since 2000, and the OraQuick® In-Home HIV Test received FDA approval in 2012.
Right now we’re building capacity so that by the end of this year, we’ll be able to produce 70 million tests a year—which is close to the number of devices we’ve manufactured in total between 2004 and 2020. That’s the kind of massive ramp up that we expect globally; testing’s not going to go away.
This past year has been an extraordinary one on many levels, and I can only imagine how it has affected the medical diagnostic industry–what has it been like?
Typically, diagnostics is pretty sleepy —now, it’s like the whole world is hanging on everything we’re doing. And we want to get out of this pandemic as much as anyone else! It’s really very satisfying that the work we’re doing can directly contribute to that.
When I became CEO three years ago, my intent was to create a leadership model based on accountability and empowerment. It’s helped us become more nimble as we make decisions, which is so important in this kind of environment.
Everything else that’s happened—the social and racial unrest, the political climate, people under duress, in isolation, caring for multi-generations, working from home which is also a school—it’s a lot. It’s a lot to happen at one time. And I am enormously proud of and grateful for the work that my colleagues have done, rising above the challenges of this moment to keep focused on the bigger goals.
OraSure’s mission is to “do good and help solve the world’s greatest health challenges.” What does that mean to you?
That’s a big question. And I think we’re on track for doing it, but there’s a whole lot more we can do. It’s like the refrain from Hamilton: “There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait.”
By making healthcare more accessible and equitable, we can have a tremendously positive impact on people, near and far. It means making it easier to take care of yourself, and know more about yourself—we help you know more about what’s in you, on you, and around you. In that sense, you can have a better relationship to your own health, to other people, and to the world.
What has this past year taught you?
So many things. As a leader, it’s important to communicate clearly and honestly even though you don’t know all the answers. As a student of business and leadership, I am amazed at what we’ve been able to accomplish. On a personal level, I’ve been taking an inventory about what’s really important—I’ve found joy and meaning in everyday things.
This year has challenged a lot of assumptions we made about what we can do and not do such as work productively from home. It was conventional wisdom that we all had to go to the office, and I’m not saying that’s not important—but I am saying that maybe some of the things we thought were true just aren’t.
What are your hopes for the future?
I have a grandson that was born in June last year; he lives in Amsterdam with his parents, and I haven’t seen him yet. So the first thing on my list is to hold and hug and play with my grandson. I’m hoping that everyone else has a chance to gather and be wherever they want to be, whenever they want to be there, sometime soon.