Ottawa’s Spartan Bioscience primed to break out following bacterial detection pivot

Paul Lem
Spartan Bioscience founder Paul Lem with the Ottawa-based company's flagship product, the Spartan Cube. (Photo by Mark Holleron)
Editor's Note

Compared with their higher-profile cousins in software, Ottawa’s tech companies devoted to medical therapies and devices face an uphill battle for funding and market penetration. This week, OBJ is looking at how they’re trying to overcome those obstacles.

For someone who’s staking his business future on a device that can deliver accurate DNA tests in less than an hour, Paul Lem has shown admirable patience waiting for his entrepreneurial labours to bear serious fruit.

It’s been nearly 14 years since Lem, a graduate of the University of Ottawa’s medical school, launched a tech venture called Spartan Bioscience. The company’s main product is the Spartan Cube, a small box-like device that collects and analyzes human DNA without having to send samples to a traditional lab.

After more than a decade, Lem and Co.’s groundbreaking invention is finally gaining momentum. It really started a couple of years ago, when Spartan began marketing its high-tech cube as a rapid test for legionella bacteria, a deadly germ that can spread through heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Among the agencies now using the Spartan Cube to detect legionella are the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York City’s department of health. Meanwhile, the Ottawa firm says it’s soon about to finalize a partnership with one of the world’s largest water treatment companies.

But Lem, who did research stints at the Harvard Medical School and the Stanford Genome Technology Centre while a student at UOttawa, believes the Spartan Cube also has the potential to revolutionize the way heart patients and people suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer’s are treated.

After years of clinical testing, the device could soon be poised for approval as a way to help doctors determine if cardiac patients will reject a commonly prescribed blood-thinner called clopidogrel, which is sold under the trade name Plavix and others, due to a genetic mutation ​– something Lems says occurs in 30 per cent of caucasian and about half of Asian patients.

The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study of the cube’s effectiveness in such situations based on eight years of data from 2,500 patents in European clinical trials. In an industry where many products must pass through a series of stringent regulatory gateways before being approved for widespread commercial use, the study was a godsend.

“That really put us on the map,” says Lem. “That said we have a commercial product that is very useful for patients.”

Now at about 70 employees, Spartan expects to announce a major new round of capital in the coming weeks. Over the past year, the firm has bolstered its executive team with high-profile recruits that include a pair of ex-Shopify staffers: new chief financial officer Blaine Fitzgerald, the e-commerce giant’s former vice-president of finance, and strategic adviser Russ Jones, Shopify’s first CFO.

Lem says it’s all part of Spartan’s slow, methodical evolution from a scientific research enterprise to a bona fide, money-making business. He says he expects the company to have a payroll of hundreds within the next few years as it aims to expand the use of its technology to help treat family pets and test water supplies for deadly bacteria. 

For 14 years, “we’ve been primarily more an R&D-focused company,” he explains. “Now we’re at that inflection point where we’re ready to really commercialize our products and ramp up sales.”

Tomorrow: How Ottawa biotech firms are finding funding through diverse applications