Paul Lem wants to put a new type of information technology in the hands of the masses.
Using a compact device made by his Ottawa firm, Spartan Bioscience, consumers will be able to accurately self-diagnose a range of infections, from strep throat to venereal diseases. Restaurant managers will be able to test food for toxic E.coli bacteria, veterinarians can monitor pets for kennel cough and hospital staff can determine which blood thinners to use for stroke patients. Brewers can even check for spoiled beer.
These and many other applications will soon be possible using the personalized DNA testing machine called the Spartan Cube. After 11 years of research and development, Mr. Lem and his team, including experts from the city's photonics and handheld medical technologies industries, have shrunk down a process now performed by large machines and administered by lab technicians, and that takes weeks to return results, to something contained in a sleek four-inch-cubed anodized, one-kilogram aluminum box. The Cube, which is simple to use and portable, generates results in 30 minutes. Although it costs about $1,000, the plan is to slash the price "so it can eventually be given away, like a blood glucose meter," and Spartan can instead make money selling test kits, copying the business model for razors and printers, Mr. Lem said.
Now, financed by consumer electronics giant Canon Inc., Mr. Lem is gearing up for the big time. After releasing the Cube last spring, Spartan launched its first three commercial applications on Sunday: unregulated tests that allow anyone to determine if they have strep or carry a genetic mutation that increases their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, and for building managers to test their heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems for toxic bacteria.
"We're giving the power of DNA testing to every person that walks into a pharmacy or health clinic," said Derek Glennie, Spartan's vice-president of engineering. "It's just something they don't even think of now. That revolution is going to take place by storm."
The science may be sound – the Mayo Clinic, among others, has validated it – and ahead of many others who have tried to miniaturize DNA testing. But Mr. Lem has two challenges ahead: proving there's a market for a device that can tell anyone on demand what bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses are invading their lives. And if there is, rapidly scaling up his 70-person company, which has already doubled in size in the last year.
"Having a product doesn't mean so much," said Akiko Tanaka, president and CEO of Canon BioMedical, the division that has invested in Spartan. "You have to have infrastructure, business capabilities." The product and organization have to be "commercial ready." Is it too early to tell? "I think so," she said. "If everything is done right, I think the product has very good potential."
Mr. Lem is the oldest of five children of Chinese immigrant parents who told him he would starve if he pursued either of his dreams – to become a writer or inventor (he has realized both goals – in 2008, he published a self-help book called Master Life Faster). During summers, his father made him study the entire upcoming year's schoolwork. "The pressure on me was, 'Succeed, work hard,'" said Mr. Lem, who won a silver medal at a Canada-wide science fair in high school one year.
Mr. Lem was accepted into medical school at the University of Ottawa, but was soon skipping classes, running a lucrative side business with a friend selling imported stethoscopes to classmates. He was also urged by Baldwin Toye, a family friend and head of microbiology at Ottawa Hospital, to follow his passions, and worked in his lab.
The enterprising student scored summer jobs at Harvard Medical School and the Stanford Genome Technology Center, where he oversaw a million-dollar chemical budget, raised fruit flies and worked alongside researchers sequencing the human genome. He came back to Canada with a desire to commercialize DNA technology.
His first DNA testing business failed due to his lack of business experience. So, Mr. Lem worked for two years with DNA Genotek Inc., an Ottawa DNA sample collection firm, as vice-president of product management.
Meanwhile, he and his brother built their first DNA testing device in Mr. Lem's Ottawa apartment out of spare parts purchased from stores along Toronto's Queen Street, "and it actually worked." He co-founded Spartan in 2005.
Mr. Lem raised $500,000 from Ottawa angel investors on the vision of what personalized DNA testing could bring and got to work with his team developing the DNA machine (he has since raised an undisclosed amount of venture capitalfrom Canon and others).
Users collect a DNA sample by doing a cheek swab, which is inserted into the top of the Cube. Inside, using a Nobel Prize-winning chemical process called polymerase chain reaction, the machine breaks open the cells, releasing the DNA and copying it a billion times. Special chemicals in kits sold separate from the device, depending on the test, glom on to DNA in specific parts. The machine then uses fluorescence to determine if the targeted condition is present, sending results to a tablet computer.
An early machine, the Spartan Rx, was the size of a toaster and sold for $10,000. It performed one FDA-approved test – determining whether heart attack or stroke victims in hospitals would respond to the blood-thinning drug Plavix (or its generic equivalent).
One of the compromises of the machine is that it can perform only one patient's DNA test at a time – unlike a mainframe DNA analyzer, which can perform upwards of 350 – but this shouldn't be a drawback for a personalized machine.
The company continued to shrink the size of its box. Spartan's scientists figured out how to replace a large DNA purification robot used in standard testing with a chemical process. Its optical engineers shrunk a system contained within large DNA analyzers that takes up the size of a tissue box to that of a loonie. Inside the Cube is a tiny heat chamber that allows the contents to reach 95 C without compromising the other parts of the machine – or generating searing heat on the outside. "That took us a long time to figure out," Mr. Lem said.
Spartan is now looking to raise tens of millions of dollars, hire dozens of sales people and engineers, and develop an eclectic number of verticals, each requiring different sales approaches given the various applications and potential customers. Mr. Lem believes the building market alone – where one major office building manager is now testing the device to detect the legionella bacteria – could be worth $1-billion in annual revenue for Spartan. "There's just so much opportunity here," he said.
Editor's Note: The weight of the cube has been corrected in the digital version of this story.