Ottawa's Spartan Bioscience getting federal backing to develop COVID-19 test

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Spartan Bioscience founder Paul Lem. File photo

With the COVID-19 crisis becoming more urgent by the day, an Ottawa-based biotech firm says it’s aiming to have a portable test ready “within weeks” that will be able to detect the virus in a matter of minutes.

Spartan Bioscience’s main product is the Spartan Cube, a small box-like device that collects and analyzes human DNA without the need to send samples to a traditional lab. Spartan founder Paul Lem says virtually everyone at the 70-person company has now turned their efforts to one task: figuring out how to perform a DNA test for the novel coronavirus on its platform.

Lem, who launched Spartan 14 years ago, says he thinks the test can be ready to go to market in a matter of weeks. 

“This is all hands on deck,” he told OBJ on Friday. “It’s a crisis for humanity … and one of the big bottlenecks has been the lack of testing. So we really want to do our part here.”

Lem says his company’s technology – which is already used to test for the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease – should be able to identify the COVID-19 virus in about 30 minutes because the test results don’t need to be verified in a lab. He said the hand-held device could be deployed anywhere from doctors’ offices, pharmacies and community centres to airports, cruise ships and border crossings.

But such rapid development of a new medical test won’t come cheap. Lem said Spartan has enough material to produce about 15,000 test cartridges, but he figures it will take at least $10 million to ramp up Spartan’s production facility to manufacture the hundreds of thousands it will take to meet demand. 

Luckily, he has a very powerful ally in his corner: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. On Friday morning, the prime minister identified Spartan as one of three Canadian companies that will be getting fast-tracked federal funding to develop technology to help fight the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We are very confident that we will be able to work with them to respond to the pressing needs in our health-care system,” Trudeau told a news conference.

Still, Lem says he’ll need to find millions of dollars from other sources as well. With the world’s financial markets in free fall, Lem says it’s been tough to tap into the usual sources of capital such as VCs and institutional investors. 

But he says he’s had fruitful talks with a number of angel investors and philanthropists and hopes he’ll have the necessary cash in place in short order.

“Things are moving very quickly,” he said, adding Trudeau’s remarks Friday “really helped” expedite the funding process.

The project also faces another hurdle: gaining regulatory approval. 

The genetic testing devices will need to get the green light from regulators such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centres for Disease Control, but Lem says he’s confident the Spartan Cube can be quickly ushered through the process because the technology is piggybacking off DNA sequencing research already conducted by the CDC. Agencies such the FDA and Health Canada have the power to fast-track such approvals in emergencies, he said, adding he’s already been talking with Canadian health authorities.

“We think (approval) is going to be extremely fast,” Lem said. “We’re basically now putting everyone in our company on this. We’re going to get this out as fast as possible.”