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Many serious conditions can now be treated successfully by rapidly diagnosing infectious diseases or matching drugs to individual genetic mutations, but it's essential to know more about the patient's DNA. Traditional lab testing could take days or even weeks – time that could prove critical in providing effective treatment.
Enter Ottawa-based Spartan Bioscience with their Spartan Cube, a revolutionary palm-sized device that boasts "sample to result in 30 minutes."
Many companies have invested heavily to create similar devices, but failed. What makes this Ontario-based company so different? The following is an interview with Paul Lem, CEO and founder of Spartan Bioscience. We hope you enjoy this remarkable story of a truly life-changing medical innovation.
Q: Tell us a little more about the Spartan Cube.
A: Our vision at Spartan is to bring accessible DNA testing to everyone. The Cube, the world's smallest DNA analyzer, is designed to be portable and convenient, allowing rapid results where and when you need them. Our first tests are targeted to solve problems in three major areas: infectious diseases—like strep throat or influenza; pharmacogenetics—how your genetic profile influences the way you metabolize drugs; and food and water safety testing for things like Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. DNA is in everything, meaning this technology will unlock a host of new applications.
Q: Where did you get the idea for the Cube?
A: My background is in medicine, and at the start of my residency training, I was running a lab and seeing patients. It was so frustrating when I wanted to order certain DNA-based tests and the lab would tell me either the test wasn't available or it was going to take weeks for results. That's not how it should be. I started thinking, "How can I build a technology that can bring DNA testing out of the lab and make it accessible to everyone?"
Q: Was it a difficult decision to leave your career in medicine?
A: I was excited about doing something that matters on a large scale. As a doctor, you can only see a certain number of patients. But when you invent something, you can potentially touch millions of people. When I'm 80, I want to reflect on my life and know I've worked on something that really matters. Spartan is that thing for me.
Q: When you decided to launch the company, were you sure the idea would be a commercial success?
A: We had seen a trend in technology of large, centralized devices becoming smaller, decentralized, and put in the hands of consumers. Look at how mainframe computers went to personal computers and then to smartphones. We had also seen the trend in medical diagnostics. Blood-glucose meters for diabetes are a good example; it wasn't so long ago that you had to go to a doctor to have blood drawn, send it off to a lab, and wait weeks to get your results back. Now you can walk into a pharmacy and pay for the test strip. We always knew mainframe DNA analyzers would follow this same trend, moving from centralized labs to personal DNA analyzers.
Q: You launched Spartan Bioscience in 2005, but the Cube is just taking off now, commercially. How did you fund its development?
A: We've been raising investments all these years. The first eight years, it was from angel investors. The last year or so, it's been from a strategic investor, Canon. That was huge for us. We also developed Spartan RX, our first-generation device. We targeted it towards hospital users, and continue to sell it around the world.
Q: What have some of the company's biggest milestones been?
A: Our biggest milestone was launching the Spartan Cube in July  because this is the closest we have come to making DNA testing truly accessible. For 10 years, that's what we've had our eyes on. Seeing the Spartan RX through FDA and Health Canada approvals was key as well. The Cube will need to do the same, and now we can apply those learnings to it.
Q: Can you tell us about Spartan's collaboration with the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre?
A: Yes, researchers there and at the Mayo Clinic are leading a study related to personalized molecular medicine for patients with heart disease undergoing coronary stent procedures. It's trying to identify whether a certain medication can help prevent various heart conditions based on a patient's genotype. This fits into Spartan's focus on pharmacogenetics.
Q: What key challenges or problems has the company faced, and how did you resolve them?
A: I think our biggest challenge was actually making the world's smallest DNA analyzer. That's something hundreds of companies have tried to do over the last 15 years. Some of them have raised up to $300 million dollars and completely failed.
Q: In surmounting that challenge, was there any benefit to being in Ontario?
A: Definitely! One of the hardest parts about making this technology is the optical engineering. There are excellent optical engineers here, and on the research side, there are top professors who understand the challenges. We've hired many employees who used to work at area tech firms, like Nortel.
Q: When it comes to supporting emerging life sciences businesses, what does Ontario do well?
There are wonderful research universities, like the University of Ottawa, Carleton University, the University of Toronto, UWaterloo—the engineers and students are amazing—so we're able to hire the people we need.
Q: In your opinion, what is the single best thing Ontario does to help companies like yours succeed?
A: I think it's the Ontario portion of the SR&ED tax credit. That's been so valuable to our company for research and development. Ontario also has tremendously helpful programs like the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE). They helped us with funding to hire people. The Southern Ontario Fund for Investment in Innovation (SOFII) was helpful as well, and locally, Invest Ottawa has been great.
Q: What is your forecast for the life sciences industry in Ontario?
A: I think it will keep growing and expanding. I see demographics driving many trends—there are increasing numbers of older people, and they are going to need more health care. They want to live longer, healthier lives; biotech and diagnostics can help with that. I also think we have a great foundation to build on here. Ontario has excellent hospitals, research universities, and talented people. And that's the basis of innovation.
Q: What advice would you give to someone considering launching a life sciences company?
A: Expect to put in a lot of time and effort to excel. It's like what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers - You have to invest 10,000 hours on average to become great at something—and the same goes for becoming a great biotech entrepreneur.
Q: What are your plans for Spartan's future?
A: We plan to expand our different tests in infectious disease, pharmacogenetics, and food and water safety testing. Beyond that, there are so many other applications—even things like veterinary diagnostics. DNA is in everything so the potential is enormous.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
November 10, 2016
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All figures are in Canadian dollars unless otherwise noted. Information is accurate at the time of publication.