Creating lifesaving technology straight out of school

Story originally published in BioTalent Canada’s youth report: Growing the bio-economy: youth in focus.

Sometimes the benefits of a wage subsidy go far beyond what anyone imagined. Just ask Jasmine Sollen. Hired straight after graduating from the University of Guelph thanks to a BioTalent Canada Career Starter subsidy, she’s led the development of a potentially lifesaving technology: a COVID-19 antigen test that’s fuelled the growth of a Canadian bio-economy startup.

As a second-year student, Sollen helped create an environmental monitoring polymerase chain reaction (PCR) solution with her professor, Mario Thomas. The highly accurate, portable technology was originally designed for environmental monitoring, able to detect the DNA of endangered or invasive species in water samples. It was later adapted to support the food safety efforts of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

When a company — Precision Biomonitoring — was created to commercialize the PCR solution, Sollen was named one of five co-founders. Thomas says they knew they wanted to hire her when she finished her degree: the BioTalent Canada Career Starter subsidy made it possible for the cash-conscious startup.

“We originally tried a BioTalent Canada co-op program but it didn’t apply to Jasmine as a grad. So BioTalent Canada recommended Career Starter,” Thomas explains. “She met all the criteria and we received confirmation very quickly. It’s a great program.”

Sollen’s team raised the profile of Precision Biomonitoring when their entry in the multinational XPRIZE “Fight COVID-19” competition made the shortlist of 200 semifinalists.

A timely pivot

Jasmine Sollen working in a lab doing testsSollen thought she’d be working on environmental technology when she rejoined the Precision Biomonitoring team after graduation. But Thomas, now CEO, had already adapted the PCR technology to test for COVID-19 and realized Precision Biomonitoring might also be able to develop a rapid antigen test as well. Since Sollen’s focus had shifted over the years to biomedical toxicology, she had the right skills mix for the company’s new priority. Thomas put her in charge of a team tasked with developing the antigen testing solution.

“At first it was really intimidating, but it was nice to be given ownership of a project so early, to have the chance to lead the team,” Sollen says. “I had to think about structure and tracking progress, which was very cool.”

Structure was a particular challenge in the pandemic context: all work was done remotely at first; it wasn’t until August 2020 that the team was able to be in the lab together. But in just a month and a half, they’d already started to see results, and very quickly the project became the company’s number-one priority.

When Thomas learned of the international XPRIZE “Fight COVID-19” competition, he thought the antigen testing project was a perfect fit. In a few short weeks, the team assembled an application and was invited to participate. They had three weeks to generate preclinical analytical data, detection limits and test sensitivity, generating their first data and validating the prototype in the process. The team’s entry was one of 200 semifinalists out of 1,000 submissions from 35 countries.

“The XPRIZE competition was a huge milestone: we realized, ‘This is going to work’,” Mario says. “From then on, we accelerated.”

Growth spurt

Precision Biomonitoring’s COVID-19 antigen-testing technology is due for global commercial launch in April 2021. As development intensified throughout 2020, the company grew exponentially from five to 35 employees. Eight positions were filled with the help of BioTalent Canada youth wage subsidy programs, five of them converting into permanent full-time roles.

“I love BioTalent Canada because their programs are so simple to use,” says Thomas. “We see them as real partners who understand why we’re doing this and why we need support. They bring more value than just administrative process.”

Hiring with the help of subsidies allowed Precision Biomonitoring to meet its business goals and also to attain ambitious diversity targets: 70 percent of its total workforce is female, and the same proportion are people from visible minority backgrounds.

While Sollen is about to shepherd her first technology through a global product launch, she’s really more curious about what comes next.

“This has been a tremendous opportunity. I don’t know what my next project will be, but I’m excited to find out and to delve even deeper into the biomedical applications of our technology.”

Funded in part by Government of Canada’s Youth Employment Skills Strategy Program