COVID-19 highlights importance of Waterloo blood startup

Engineering and scientific talent in Canada help scale R&D

Shane Kilpatrick (MSc ’17, MBET ’18) is the founder and CEO of Membio, a Canadian startup that is developing technology to manufacture fully functioning red blood cells at an industrial scale. Kilpatrick says Membio’s innovative Neoblood will be a donor-free, pathogen-resistant solution to a reliable blood supply. Membio got its start in the University of Waterloo’s Velocity program, where it was awarded CAN$100,000 by winning various pitch competitions through Waterloo’s Quantum Valley Investments Problem Pitch competition, Velocity and the Accelerator Centre JumpStart program. Last year, Membio raised US$750,000 for its pre-seed round.

How has the COVID-19 crisis highlighted the need for Membio technology?

When the pandemic was in its early phases, there was a severe shortage of blood, both in Canada and the U.S., because of the widespread cancellation of blood drives due to physical distancing. This highlights the fragility of a blood supply system totally dependent on donors and the need for a completely donor-free and pathogen-resistant solution such as our NeoBlood. It is a small miracle that the blood supply has been successfully maintained throughout this crisis. For this, a big thank you to all the transfusion medicine professionals, from volunteers to hematologists, is long overdue. What goes on behind the scenes to give the rest of us the impression that blood is in endless supply is truly incredible.

How can Canada support startups through this pandemic and the shutdown of so many businesses?

Without a doubt, not every good or even great company will be able to weather this storm. Moving forward, it would be great to see Canada invest more heavily in innovation. For example, if the government was willing to match outside investment in selected companies, that would go a long way to helping the best startups move and grow quickly right here in Canada.

You were in San Francisco's IndieBio incubator. What learning did you bring back to Canada?

San Francisco and IndieBio taught me that nothing is too bold or too big. Incredibly smart people backing our ambitious vision has been a game-changer. I have confidence in saying that anything is possible when you want to change the world through business. The best ideas integrate social and financial returns to create system-wide change. Unfortunately, this perspective is not as widely endorsed in the more conservative investment landscape of Canada. This is not to say that Canadians are not innovative — we certainly are — just that big ideas have a harder time finding their legs here.

Tell me about your trip back to Canada during the outbreak.

I was planning on being in San Francisco until we closed our current financing round. However, as the pandemic was unfolding, borders were being closed, and case counts in San Francisco rose, I knew I had to get back to Canada as soon as possible. I decided to leave and I quickly packed up all my belongings, got on a plane, and within a few days, the entire country had shut down.

What is the future for Membio?

Our mission is to ensure the world has a safe and sustainable supply of blood. Although we have started this journey, the finish line is still a ways away and we need help to get there. So, once the dust settles on the other side of this pandemic, we will be looking for brilliant scientists and engineers to join our team and take us through this next stage of development!

What is the best thing about building your business in Canada?

On a personal level, I am so proud to be a Canadian and love that we can build a high-growth company right here at home. There is incredible engineering and scientific talent here for us to scale our R&D operations and government programs that really foster R&D based innovation in young companies.

What’s the biggest challenge of building your business in Canada?

The access to capital here just is not comparable to places like San Francisco. Although there is a growing number of VC firms in Canada, we are a long way away from having a Canadian equivalent of Silicon Valley’s Sand Hill Road. Also, Canada is a relatively small market compared to our neighbours to the South.

Tell us about a Canadian (entrepreneur or not) that you most admire and why?

There are a lot of amazing Canadians, but my answer has to be my grandfather, Dr. Robert Jaques. He is an accomplished scientist and from an early age has been a huge source of inspiration for me. To this day, I’m truly amazed at how he, and other scientists of the time, were able to harness their curiosity and draw thoughtful conclusions in the absence of all the equipment and computers we rely on for data collection today.

What’s on your bucket list for Canadian destinations?

I’d love to go to the Yukon. This area in Canada is never really spoken about, so I feel there is some mystery and remoteness to it that I can’t help but want to explore. Also, Baffin Island and the temperate rainforests on Vancouver Island.

What’s your favourite Canadian tune?

Pinch Me by Barenaked Ladies