Paul Lem chief medical officer holding a square box that is a spartan DNA analyzer

#12: Ontario-based businesses and the innovation born as a result of COVID-19

Paul Lem, chief medical officer and founder:

I founded Spartan Bioscience in 2005 with the mission to enable rapid DNA testing for everyone. When a close family member of mine was diagnosed with leukemia, it took weeks to get DNA results back from a lab before starting a life-saving drug. This gave me an idea: How could I bring the power of DNA testing out of the lab? How could everyone get access to personal DNA analyzers? After all, diabetic patients can test their blood glucose at home. Why can’t we do the same with DNA? Spartan has grown into a leading biotechnology company that has developed the world’s smallest DNA analyzer. Spartan’s fast, accurate and affordable tests will make DNA testing accessible for everyone, in fields as diverse as infectious disease, precision medicine and water safety.

illustration of nurse taking a covid-19 sample up the nose

With the support of the Government of Canada, Spartan began developing a portable COVID-19 test based on a validated and published “recipe” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The Spark: What were you up to before March 2020?

PL: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Spartan had already applied its technology to a variety of different fields. For example, we have an environmental testing product that detects Legionella bacteria. Legionella poses a significant risk to the water systems of buildings, including the office buildings here in the Ottawa area. People who breathe in water vapour contaminated with Legionella bacteria are at risk of Legionnaires’ Disease, a severe pneumonia that kills one in 10 infected people. Spartan has created the fastest, most accurate tool to detect Legionella contamination on site. This allows for quick remediation and ultimately helps prevent Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks. Another example is our precision medicine test for CYP2C19 mutations. CYP2C19 is a liver enzyme that metabolizes 15 percent of all prescribed drugs, including antiplatelet drugs, antidepressants and proton pump inhibitors. CYP2C19 genotyping can help doctors treat patients with the most effective drugs.


The Spark: You pivoted during the pandemic, and were approached by the government for help. When did you change course?

PL: Spartan’s experience with research and development of rapid DNA testing over the last 15 years meant that we were ready to answer the call for increased COVID-19 testing when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Canada. With the support of the Government of Canada, Spartan began developing a portable COVID-19 test based on a validated and published “recipe” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This recipe uses a Nobel Prize-winning nucleic acid amplification chemistry called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and genetic sequences validated and published by the CDC. Like our other tests, this test will be performed on our portable DNA analyzer device called the Spartan Cube.


The Spark: What have you learned from pivoting? What has business been like since?

PL: I learned to appreciate the quote from Seneca: “Luck is where opportunity meets preparation.” Spartan spent 15 years developing world-class expertise and a successful track record in portable DNA analysis. This meant we were prepared to help when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada. Spartan has been working around the clock to develop our portable COVID-19 test, get Health Canada approval and scale our manufacturing. It’s been more challenging because many of our teammates have been working from home. However, we’ve pulled together and it’s exciting to see the progress we make every day.

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