Kulbir Singh (43)
Chief technology officer and co-founder of Sona Nanotech, a life sciences technology company that develops rapid screening tests and manufactures gold nanorods for use in diagnostic testing and medical applications.
Hometown: Antigonish, N.S. (moved from Punjab, India in 2006)
Alma mater: Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, Punjab (Ph.D, MSc, BSc – Chemistry)
Headquarters: Halifax, N.S.
The company’s breakthrough discovery was finding a way to make gold nanorods (GNRs) that are toxin free and have a “high potential to go into medical applications,” explains Kulbir Singh. GNRs are microscopic gold nanoparticles that are shaped into rods. They have special chemical properties that make them useful in diagnosing and treating diseases. But until now, their potential was limited because of the toxic chemical required to manufacture them. Sona’s GNRs, however, don’t use that chemical. Which means they can potentially be used inside the human body, making them suitable for a wider range of medical treatments.
The company also develops lateral flow diagnostic tests (similar to pregnancy tests) that can be used without the need for specialized lab equipment or trained technicians. Its latest venture is a rapid screening test for COVID-19 that gives results in minutes.
The path to discovery
Over 14 years ago when Singh came to St. Francis Xavier University to do research with chemistry professor Gerrard Marangoni, he couldn’t have imagined how his future would unfold.
Within a few years, the two scientists started a company that made environmentally-friendly cleaning products. The research that went into developing those products was critical to the breakthrough discovery that launched Sona. “We made a material that is more bio-friendly,” he explains. “It was almost the same technology that we were using in our cleaning products, and we could translate it into the nanoparticles.”
What happened to take you to the next level?
After several lean years operating out of a university lab, a major turning point came in 2015 when Sona established a partnership with venture capital firm Numus Financial. “It gave us a boost. It moved us from being a campus researched-based company to an independent company.” Additional growth and expansion came in 2018 when the company moved to its new lab space in Innovacorp’s tech innovation centre in Dartmouth.
Sona goes public
Seeing Sona listed on the Canadian Stock Exchange in October 2018 has been the highlight of Singh’s startup journey so far. “This transitioned us from entrepreneurs to a small-size nanotechnology company. I felt accomplished and ready for the next challenge.”
Then came the pandemic
As a scientist, Singh says he’s had his share of high-pressure moments. But nothing compares to the stress he felt last February when Sona decided to develop a screening test for COVID-19. “It was like you were going to fight Mike Tyson,” he jokes. In late March, a $4.1 million grant from NGen, Canada’s advanced manufacturing supercluster, helped the company ramp up its virus test development with more equipment and staff.
Stock market surge attracts attention
Last summer, the company’s share price skyrocketed following positive results from its COVID-19 test clinical trials. The spike was temporary and by late fall the stock was down significantly, but that summer surge caught the attention of investors and analysts. “I hardly watch it because I’m not into this to get a ton of money,” he says. “We’re spending our time doing our best to get this test out so it can help people. Looking at share prices can only defocus me from what I’m doing.”
A bumpy road to success
As a scientist-turned-startup founder, Singh has had a taste of the highs and lows of entrepreneurship. “The main thing that made it difficult was me not knowing much about business and being more focused on technology.”
And the lean financial times were especially hard. “In a small business, you’ve got some money and then that money is gone and you wonder what you’re going to do now. Those are the bumps.”
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
“Personally, it was me. It was a constant battle in my head, a constant discussion with my wife, ‘Am I on the right track or not?’” recalls Singh.
A few years ago, tired of the financial struggles, he almost gave up. He wondered if his dream of using his discovery in cancer treatment would ever come true. “I said, ’I know these particles have application in cancer, but with this money we’ll never get that far.’” As the company gained ground, his doubts disappeared and he found the drive to keep on going.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken with this venture?
“The whole thing is a risk. I put my whole career at stake.”
Where does Sona go from here?
While the current focus is on the COVID-19 test, Singh says there will be other diagnostic tests coming in the future. “Our broader idea is to bring the lab to the patients.” In July, the company also announced plans to apply to have its shares listed on the NASDAQ.
What does success look like?
“My original idea was to get it [Sona’s gold nanorod product] into cancer treatment, so I won’t stop until that’s done.”
Top tip for would-be founders
“Talk to the person who’ll ask you tough questions.” Singh thinks one of the best ways to get your idea challenged is to compete in a startup competition. Over the years, Sona has won a few of those events, including an award from Innovacorp in 2015 and a Startup Canada Innovation Award in 2019. “These mean a lot to a startup. They validate that what you’re doing is right and that you’re on the right track.” •