Consumer products giant Canon Inc. has bought a stake in Spartan Bioscience Inc., marking a major turning point for the Ottawa startup that is hoping to bring DNA testing to the masses with its innovative technology.
Canon's U.S. arm will help Spartan – which already sells a device that ensures heart patients get the right medication for their genetic makeup – to create new rapid-testing products and market them worldwide.
Spartan CEO Paul Lem said the Canon investment is "probably the biggest milestone we've achieved" and will bring to his company Canon's manufacturing expertise and a massive global network for sales and service.
"They are used to manufacturing at enormous scale," he said. And because Canon is one of the world's largest consumer electronics companies, "their ability to do product development is incredible."
Mr. Lem would not reveal how much of stake Canon is buying in the private firm, or how much money the deal involves. But he said Canon USA's executive vice-president Seymour Liebman is becoming a Spartan director and "I think it speaks to how significant [this deal] is that they have their No. 2 person joining our board."
Canon USA currently has a small health care division that mainly makes portable x-Ray machines.
Harley Finkelstein, chief platform officer for Shopify Inc., another promising Ottawa startup, described the Canon investment in Spartan as "a great feather in the cap for the Canadian technology community."
It is also an example of the sustainability of Canada's tech firms, he said. "As a country we're producing incredible products, software and hardware, but we're also building long-lasting companies."
As for the Spartan technology itself, Mr. Finkelstein said it could eventually "democratize" DNA testing because it is done on demand instead of waiting for samples to go to a lab. "They've just taken something that was always very valuable, but typically was expensive and complicated, and they've made it just really easy to use."
Spartan's current device, called the Spartan RX, allows patients to find out within an hour if they are suitable candidates to received a certain medication. In the past, these tests had to be done in large laboratories and were time consuming – taking up to a week to get results.
The device helps doctors decide if patients should be given Plavix, a widely used blood thinner that helps prevent clots. Some people have a genetic variant that means they do not respond well to Plavix or its generic equivalent, and the complications can be serious. The Spartan technology allows a quick check, using a cheek swab that is placed into the device, which is about the size of a toaster. The results show whether the patient should be treated with an alternative drug.
In 2013, Spartan received regulatory approval to sell the device in the United States, although in that country it can only be used in a hospital setting.
Last October, Health Canada approved its use by Canadian front-line health care professionals, such as doctors, nurses and pharmacists. So far, one unit has been installed in a Canadian pharmacy – in Quebec – but Mr. Lem says there is "a pipeline of others" who will soon purchase it.
A large clinical trial of the Spartan devices, funded by the Mayo Clinic, is under way at more than 25 hospitals in Canada, the United States and South Korea.
Each Spartan unit costs about $10,000, and each test costs about $250.