Coping with COVID-19: Spartan Bioscience's 15-year 'overnight success story'

Editor's Note

In order to keep Ottawa business leaders informed amid the unprecedented COVID-19 disruption, OBJ publisher Michael Curran is conducting a series of video panel discussions over the coming weeks with local business experts.

In this latest episode of Coping With COVID-19, OBJ publisher Michael Curran talked to an Ottawa-based entrepreneur who’s been thrust into the national spotlight thanks to his company’s innovative DNA testing product.

The company, Spartan Bioscience, is frequently mentioned in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s daily updates, as a prime example of businesses rising to the challenge of fighting the pandemic. Spartan CEO Paul Lem took time from his busy schedule to speak with OBJ.

What follows is an edited transcript of the panel discussion. To hear the full interview, please watch the video above.

OBJ: Paul, this must be an absolute whirlwind for you.

LEM: It's pretty crazy. It was March 20 when Prime Minister Trudeau mentioned the government was signing a letter of intent with Spartan Bioscience. By March 25, we had a humongous contract with the federal government. By March 31, they gave us a downpayment, a huge amount, and we started ramping up production. So, yes, the last three weeks have been like the inside of a tornado. I've read books about what this is like and I've talked to other people such as Tobi Lütke at Shopify about explosive growth. Now we're experiencing it at Spartan. 

OBJ: I think it was Harley Finkelstein, also from Shopify, who said that 2020 was going to be a breakout year for Spartan. Wow, that prediction was bang-on. How is your team adjusting to this explosive growth?

LEM: One of the advantages we have is that our team has several veterans who have been planning for Spartan Bioscience to scale for many years. These people have a background in how to scale medical devices. So we were relatively prepared for what we needed to do. Still, things are changing quickly and we’re fighting all of these fires, while still keeping an eye on the big picture. 

OBJ: Paul, I want to dig into your backstory a bit. You and Spartan Bioscience have been working on this medical device for a lot of years. Tell me about those early days at Spartan.

LEM: I’m a medical doctor and my specialty is infectious disease microbiology. Back in the day, I worked at these central labs with big mainframe DNA analysers. I always thought that, one day, these mainframe analysers would come out of the lab and everyone would have personal analysers. We’ve already seen this trend in tech. Things go from mainframe to personal computers to smartphones. For example, people would do blood glucose tests by sending off samples. Now people have their own personal blood glucose meters. They do it themselves. So I thought this trend would come to DNA analysis. I just didn’t realize it would take 14 years.

OBJ: Yes, for sure, Paul. You started off doing tests for legionella bacteria, I think. That was the first big commercial opportunity for your DNA testing kit.

LEM: That's right. So over these 14 years, we've always thought that it made sense on a conceptual level that people would want instant results. If you think of a smartphone, it gives you instant access to information. Well, DNA is Mother Nature's original information technology. We thought instant testing made sense. People are going to want this. Then the question was this: what is going to be the killer app. What will people want instant DNA tests for? You’re correct that we focused on Legionella. That’s a bacteria that contaminates water systems in buildings and it can cause severe pneumonia and kill people. So over the years we’ve been developing this nice product.

OBJ: OK, Paul, let’s zoom forward a bit. When did you determine that your cube testing product could be used for COVID-19?

LEM: So my colleagues and I thought for years that one day there would be a global pandemic. You look at the history of humanity and every 50 to 100 years there is a pandemic. Of course, the last one was the Spanish Flu of 1918. So we were overdue for something like COVID-19. We have been monitoring things around the world for signs of a pandemic. When the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) published validated tests of more than two thousand clinical samples of COVID-19, we decided to test our device. That was the genesis of our COVID-19 product.