Portable diagnostic devices built by U of T startup LSK Technologies Inc. can diagnose viral diseases on the spot, even in remote areas.
A technology inspired by the Zika virus crisis is now helping the world cope with COVID-19.
LSK Technologies Inc. (LSK) is a startup founded by U of T alumni Seray Çiçek and Yuxiu (Livia) Guo with professor Keith Pardee. The trio invented their portable diagnostic devices to help strained health-care systems in remote Latin American communities meet the threat of the Zika virus.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, they quickly expanded their platform to diagnose COVID-19 in areas without adequate lab facilities.
LSK Technologies Inc. originated in a U of T lab
The technology originated in 2016 when Pardee, who is Canada Research Chair in Synthetic Biology in Human Health at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and Chief Scientific Officer with LSK, created a special paper that changes colour in reaction to a viral genome. By simply adding a medical sample and incubating it, the presence of a virus could be detected in one hour, instead of the usual several days.
In 2018, Guo and Çiçek, then master’s students in working in Pardee’s lab, built a portable device that could use the paper, operate off a battery and provide an easy-to-read result, even for users without special medical or lab expertise. Since then the team has expanded their platform to detect proteins and nucleic acids, making it possible to conduct a wider range of diagnostic tests.
“We realized we were building a product that people wanted to use and seeing that made us graduate as soon as we could to start working on this!” says Çiçek, the company’s CEO.
LSK joined U of T Entrepreneurship hubs UTEST and H2i in 2019 to help get their startup off the ground. “They were really helpful in shifting our gears from academia to business,” says Çiçek. “They supported us in shaping our company from legal, IP and go-to-market strategy perspectives as well.”
Both hubs also assisted with vital networking, UTEST through access to MaRS and Life Sciences Ontario resources and H2i to medical regulatory experts and angel investors. “They were advocates for our startup,” says Guo, the company’s COO. “When we had to present, they would help us to polish our pitch, which was really helpful for us to improve our results.”
Those results have been good. The fledging company now has an alpha prototype and plans pilot projects in Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador. They won the Pitch Perfect and the Velocity Fund pitch competitions and in early 2020, they took two prizes in the 2020 RBC Innovation & Entrepreneurship Early Stage Competition.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated LSK Technologies’ work on portable diagnostic testing
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Canadian government awarded Pardee’s lab $1 million as part of a larger $275-million investment in research related to the global outbreak, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research awarded $500,000 specifically for field testing with LSK’s device. “Our goal is to create lab-in-a-box kits that provide 14,000 tests for COVID-19,” he said.
The Pardee Lab will use LSK’s devices to conduct patient trials in Toronto, Vietnam, Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia as well. “We need to take our tool through the necessary regulatory process, but we believe it could really make an important difference in helping more people be tested [for COVID-19] at a lower cost than traditional technology,” Pardee says.
“By bringing diagnostic capacity to the doctor’s office we can fundamentally change how we respond to global pandemics,” Çiçek told the Velocity Fund Pitch Competition in February 2020. “Our decentralized model will help keep the world healthy and protected.”