'Amazing technology': New Spartan CEO says Ottawa firm on verge of market breakthrough

Spartan Cube
Spartan Bioscience's rapid COVID-19 test, called the Spartan Cube, is awaiting approval from Health Canada. Photo courtesy Spartan Bioscience

The man tasked with getting one of the most-anticipated products in the battle against the coronavirus to market has a message for those anxiously awaiting its arrival: it’ll be worth the wait.

“It’s an amazing technology,” Roger Eacock, the newly appointed CEO of Spartan Bioscience, says of the company’s Spartan Cube, a portable device that can deliver COVID-19 test results in about an hour.

“When you see that thing in action, it’s a definite ‘wow’ factor ​– like seeing your first iPhone.”

It’s probably no coincidence that Eacock compares Spartan’s cutting-edge Cube to a piece of technology that revolutionized the mobile communications industry. He’s hoping the coffee-cup-sized mini-test lab can make Spartan as dominant a force in Canadian biotech as Apple is in smartphones.

“It’s a massive opportunity here,” says Eacock, who took the reins as chief executive late last month after Spartan founder Paul Lem stepped aside to become the firm’s chief medical officer. 

“There is an urgent unmet need for a Canadian-made COVID (testing) solution.”

But first things first. Health Canada still hasn’t officially cleared the Spartan Cube for use, a process that was put on hold earlier this year. 

After initially giving the device the green light for emergency use in April, the agency said a few weeks later Spartan’s proprietary nasal swab wasn’t collecting sufficient amounts of the virus DNA from infected individuals to ensure accurate readings. 

"It’s a massive opportunity here. There is an urgent unmet need for a Canadian-made COVID (testing) solution."

Production was suddenly halted, leaving the fate of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sales to the federal, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec governments – which had ordered nearly two million test cartridges and the cubes that process them – up in the air.

Spartan’s engineers spent the next several months working day and night to refine the sampling process. In late October, Health Canada gave Spartan the go-ahead to begin clinical trials on symptomatic COVID-19 patients using the new method.

Spartan’s new boss says he’s confident the company will receive the necessary approvals from health authorities in Canada “within the next few weeks.” Meanwhile, the Spartan Cube is also undergoing testing at three sites south of the border, and Eacock is hoping the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will clear the device for use in that country by early 2021.

“Once we have Canada and the U.S., that’s going to open up a lot of the international market for us,” he says.

“Wherever there are delays getting products to market, it’s always a challenge. Spartan is very fortunate in that we have amazing partners at all levels of government who have supported us.”

In many ways, his new job is just the kind of challenge that Eacock relishes.

Scaleup guru

The 61-year-old University of Windsor commerce graduate has become known as a scaleup guru during a career that’s seen him occupy senior operations roles in a diverse spectrum of companies that includes Dell, Hyundai, Levi Strauss and Sobeys.

As vice-president of trucking company Totalline Transport in the early 2000s, Eacock orchestrated a dramatic turnaround of the money-losing venture, transforming the family-owned enterprise into a lean, profit-making machine that became the focus of a case study at the Harvard Business School. 

Now, Eacock has taken his talents to Spartan, which was launched 14 years ago.

The company spent years developing a rapid DNA test for legionella bacteria, a deadly germ that can spread through heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. The technology was later adapted to determine whether heart patients will reject certain types of blood thinners due to a genetic mutation.

Then COVID-19 hit. After more than a decade of flying under the radar as an R&D-focused company, Spartan suddenly found itself in the spotlight this spring when the firm quickly pivoted its device to test for the novel coronavirus. 

“COVID really put Spartan on the international stage,” says Eacock. 

Indeed, the Ottawa firm appeared destined for a breakthrough before Health Canada put the brakes on the Spartan Cube’s rollout. 

But Eacock believes Spartan is well-positioned to make up for lost time even as well-heeled competitors such as U.S.-based Abbott Laboratories are preparing to ship millions of their own rapid tests to Canada.

He says Spartan’s technology – which amplifies genetic material extracted from a swab through a polymerase chain reaction – is the industry “gold standard.” He wouldn’t comment on its precise accuracy, saying only it’s “exceedingly good.” 

Funding crunch

Eacock says the portable device is poised to become a fixture in places where people can’t afford to wait days for laboratory tests such as airports, cruise ships and long-term care facilities as well as remote locations that don’t have easy access to medical facilities.  

Now, all Spartan needs is money. 

The company has boosted its headcount by 50 per cent since the start of the year and now stands at nearly 100 employees as it prepares to scale up. Spartan has contracted a Toronto-area manufacturer to produce up to 200,000 test cartridges a week once it has the green light from Health Canada, while Taiwan-based Wistron Corp is set to make the Cubes.

But if Spartan really wants to elbow its way to the front of a global field that features the likes of Abbott, Roche and other medical equipment giants, it will need hefty financial backing.

To that end, the firm recently beefed up its board of directors with several health-care industry veterans, including new chair Rochelle Stenzler, the former president and GM of PharmaPlus Drugmarts. 

In addition, Spartan brought on Lennie Ryer, the former CFO of Montreal-based cannabis company Cannara Biotech, to head up its fundraising efforts as it looks to secure a mix of government and private funding for its go-to-market push.

“We’re going well on that front, so that’s great news,” Eacock says.

Meanwhile, the company is already looking at where to channel its R&D efforts next as it aims to expand the Spartan Cube’s potential market reach. While Eacock predicts COVID-19 will be the firm’s main area of focus “for some time,” he also knows that adapting the Cube for other uses will be a key to Spartan’s long-term success.

As far as he’s concerned, the sky's the limit.

“The opportunities are quite significant,” Eacock says. “It’s just a question of which one do we want to tackle first.”