Health test for pets makes its way from lab to garage to stores

· The Pulse

Kidney-Chek, a non-invasive test for chronic kidney disease in dogs and cats, is available in stores as of this week, marking an important milestone for a company that started in a biomedical engineering lab at the University of Alberta.

"We're really excited about just getting staff at these stores engaging with pet owners on it, getting feedback, and seeing what happens there," CEO and co-founder Hillary Sweet told Taproot as her product was about to be made available to consumers online and in nine Global Pet Foods stores in Alberta and Ontario.

Sweet said she hadn't planned on an academic career, and yet she found herself pursuing a PhD in materials engineering and biomedical engineering. Luckily, her supervisor was Robert E. Burrell, inventor of Acticoat, an antimicrobial silver dressing that keeps bacteria at bay. He challenged Sweet and fellow doctoral student Matthew Nickel to think like entrepreneurs from the beginning.

"If it wasn't for working under Rob, I don't think I would have made through my PhD," Sweet said, crediting Burrell for challenging her to consider things like cost-effectiveness and ease of use. "His outlook was, 'What can we have you working on for the next four years during your PhD? And how can we make sure we're thinking about how it will be commercialized?'"

Sweet and Nickel knew they wanted to work on simple and affordable diagnostics. They found a mentor in veterinarian-turned-businessman Merle Olson of Alberta Veterinary Laboratories in Calgary. He made them aware of the prevalence of chronic kidney disease in dogs and cats, and the importance of early detection. That seemed like a problem they could try solving, so they got to work.

The result is Kidney-Chek, a fast, affordable test that requires a swab of your pet's saliva on a test strip that will indicate whether all is well or a visit to the vet is warranted.

The company Sweet and Nickel formed, called sn biomedical, initially planned to start with Kidney-Chek, then work on a pregnancy test for livestock, followed by some kind of regulated product for humans, using the profits from the previous project to bankroll the development of the next. That's not quite how it has turned out, at least not yet.

"Being a little bit oblivious to the time periods and energy it would take, we always saw ourselves going into the human sector," she said. "Now we've gotten to where we are, and it has taken longer than we thought and more money than we thought. And so we are trying to focus on getting Kidney-Chek out there, getting the revenue, and not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves. But we do see the potential for additional saliva tests for both humans and pets."

Three smiling people sit on a couch. Hillary Sweet holds a spaniel on the left, and Alicia Naundorf holds a tabby ca on the right, with Matthew Nickel is in the middle

Kidney-Chek CEO Hillary Sweet with Louie, along with fellow co-founder and CTO Matthew Nickel, sales representative Alicia Naundorf, and Xenophon. (Ampersand Grey)

Packaging was more complex than Sweet ever imagined. It needed to be enticing for consumers, with easy-to-follow instructions, in English and in French. And it has to be something that Kidney-Chek staff can assemble in their garage in Leduc County, which they're still doing themselves in these early days.

"Now I look at every package that is in my hand and analyze it and check out their barcodes and their labels and the graphics that go into it," Sweet said. "There's just so many things that go into the packaging that we have spent a lot of time on."

Kidney-Chek has an unusual challenge in that it doesn't quite fit the verticals that economic development agencies and startup support organizations tend to focus on in the Edmonton region, namely health and agriculture.

"I think we do fall into a little bit of a crack in Edmonton," Sweet said, noting that Kidney-Chek's challenges are different from those of the highly regulated human health space, and yet the needs of pets are different from those of livestock. "Sometimes people don't really know where to categorize us."

On the other hand, entrepreneurs of all stripes have a common set of problems, and Sweet appreciates the chance to work those out with others, whether it be at events like Startup TNT's Life Sciences Investment Summit earlier this year, the Creative Destruction Lab program that Kidney-Chek is about to begin, or Launch Party 13, where Sweet made a pitch for investment during Edmonton Startup Week.

"It was a lot of fun for us. We had a lot of great conversations with people stopping by the booth," she said of her Launch Party experience. "We had some people buying (Kidney-Chek) at the event, which we were not expecting."

Learn more about Hillary Sweet's entrepreneurial journey and what's next for Kidney-Chek in Episode 36 of Bloom, Taproot's podcast about innovation, to be released Nov. 3.