Small Companies, Big Ideas

By taking aim at high-potential startups, an accelerator program aims
to create a lasting ecosystem for medtech innovation

Photo: Dr. Asha Parekh of Frontline Medical Technologies Inc.

THE CALL WENT out on the first Friday of March, and there wasn’t a moment to spare. For more than a year, a few determined folks at TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario had been working to launch a life science entrepreneurship program. It would provide funding and mentorship to a collection of the region’s best medical technology startups, doing in one field what TechAlliance has been doing in the technology field more broadly for 15 years—helping people with good ideas turn them into products and businesses.

Christened BURST, the program would be targeted specifically at medical technology, because in that area London has—pardon the technical term—gobs of potential. There’s so much potential, in fact, that nearly two years ago many of the city’s medical institutions created the London Medical Network. Its goal is nothing less than to make the London area a worldwide medical innovation hub, much the way the Mayo Clinic transformed a part of rural Minnesota into one of the world’s biggest integrated health networks.

London’s medical sector is already valued at about $2 billion and employs thousands of people. But the LMN hopes to expand those numbers dramatically over the next three decades.

So when TechAlliance came knocking several months ago with its BURST idea, the LMN jumped. “We really liked the idea,” says Paul Paolatto, executive director of Western Research Parks and the public face of the LMN. “In the early stages of our plan, we want to attract large industrial players and also help grow entrepreneurial companies. We can help TechAlliance with BURST and not duplicate what they’re doing.”

BURST was designed specifically for entrepreneurial companies, and LMN pledged $900,000 in support. That allowed TechAlliance to apply for matching funds from the federal government, and that was why the initial call for applicants on the first Friday of March was so rushed.

“When you’re dealing with federal money, there are a lot of requirements and deadlines that can be difficult to navigate,” says TechAlliance vice-president of operations, Justin Leushner. Which is a politic way of saying when the funding finally materialized, the program had to start immediately to satisfy federal conditions.

And so, on March 3 the word went out, asking local medtech startups to apply for $70,000 each in funding and related assistance. Deadline for applications: March 7.

When Leushner and TechAlliance entrepreneur-in-residence Colin Macaulay were dreaming up BURST, beginning in December, 2015, they did not envision a hasty launch over a weekend, searching for at least 10 suitable candidates. So they were relieved and somewhat amazed when they got 34 applications in four days.

“One great thing about the BURST program is we now have a place to call home. We’ve moved into the Stiller Centre at the Research Park, instead of working from our homes and
coffee shops”
—Tory Jarmain

There will be two more calls for applications this year, with deadlines of July 1 and November 1, each for 10 more companies, to complete the BURST mandate of assisting 30 burgeoning life science startups.

“We had our initial 34 applications screened by expert judges, and they made suggestions,” Leushner says. “So some of those early applicants will probably come back better prepared in one of the next two rounds.”

The level of interest and the quality of the first cohort of companies has solidified the belief at TechAlliance and the LMN that London is awash in great ideas, many of which just need some help to move from the idea stage.

One such idea has the potential to save countless lives by giving first responders and those with even less training a tool to staunch internal bleeding after a trauma. It is the brainchild of Dr. Adam Power, a vascular surgeon at LHSC Victoria Hospital whose research interests include new products and intellectual property of medical devices. He has teamed up with Dr. Asha Parekh, who earned her PhD in biomedical engineering from Western two years ago. She pursued her interest in developing technology by spending the next year in a medical innovation fellowship at Western, creating prototypes and obtaining patents.

She met Power there, and together they founded Front Line Medical Technologies Inc.

“We’re developing a tool for trauma injuries where you can’t use compression to stop the bleeding,” she says. “Trauma to internal organs is one of the most survivable injuries—if you can stop the bleeding quickly. But unlike an arm or leg, you can’t simply apply pressure to do that.”

The device—as yet unnamed—works like a tiny balloon and inflates to stop blood flow. The key to the device is the ease of use. “It’s designed to be used by people with the equivalent of basic first aid training, maybe not even that,” Parekh says.

They have been working with Dr. Wankei Wan of the Faculty of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, as well as Robarts Research Institute. With prototype in hand, they applied for BURST money to move to the next level, which includes refining the prototype and then running validation studies. When it’s fully tested and proven, they likely will search for a partner to help produce and distribute the device.

“The exciting thing is when we get this out there, it will save lives. That’s extremely rewarding,” Parekh says.

As one of the 10 initial companies chosen, Front Line receives $60,000 cash and $10,000 worth of consulting and education on topics as needed.

“These ideas cannot be developed by someone working part-time,” says Macaulay. “These people are passionate about their ideas and want to devote all of their attention to them. BURST allows them to do that. It accelerates the development of great ideas.”

The $60,000, half from LMN and half from the federal grant, can be used however the organization sees fit. The flexibility of the program is one of its strengths, Leushner believes. “Each organization is in a different place. Some are just an idea and need help with a business plan and basic organization. Others are much further along.”

Another of the first-round funding recipients, Triage, is in the further along category, with eight full-time employees in London and Ottawa, a partnership in New Zealand, and clinical trials just around the corner.

“One great thing about the BURST program is we now have a place to call home,” says founder and CEO Tory Jarmain. “We’ve moved into the Stiller Centre at the Research Park, instead of working from our homes and coffee shops.”

Triage began two years ago when Jarmain, 29, sold a web development company, Bitmaker Labs, he had created in 2012. His original idea was to develop a way for patients and doctors to communicate more efficiently, but that concept gave way to something much more promising: harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence to diagnose skin conditions with nothing more than a smartphone.

Like many apps, its simplicity is backed by robust behind-the-scenes work. Triage has amassed a library of 200,000 photos of skin conditions—everything from harmless rashes and bumps to serious melanoma symptoms. Its partnership with a New Zealand medical library helped grow the catalog tenfold from its original size.

Using an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm, the app can identify a condition with a higher degree of accuracy than the typical medical expert who first sees a patient.

“The average family doctor doesn’t see all these symptoms very often,” Jarmain says. “They don’t have the experience and expertise of a dermatologist. If they think something is serious, they may refer the patient to an expert, but that can take six to nine months on a waiting list. Even a dermatologist using a dermatoscope is only accurate 60 to 80 per cent of the time.”

The Triage vision is to get the app into the hands of family doctors who can use it to determine how serious a condition actually is. A melanoma patient would go to the front of the specialist line, dramatically improving the chances of successful treatment.

“These companies are building things that are going to help people. Yes, it’s good for the economy and job creation, but it also creates products that do some good”
—Colin Macaulay

Although he’s focused on skin conditions now, Jarmain’s dreams are much larger. Once it’s shown that AI can diagnose something from a photo, the concept could expand. “What if we used an infrared camera, for example? It could allow for universal screening for lots of ailments.”

Triage is working with a past president of the Canadian Dermatology Association to organize clinical trials. “The reaction has been universally positive,” Jarmain says.

Whether or not it pans out as hoped, the Triage model is precisely the kind of concept the LMN was created to assist. It will always be on the lookout for large players it can attract to London. Its first success of that kind occurred in April, when the network teamed up with Britain’s Renishaw PLC to create the Additive Design in Surgical Solutions Centre, a $6.8-million partnership that will develop 3D printing technology geared to the medical sector.

But those opportunities are rare. The other strategy is to support programs like BURST that choose 30 strong seedlings and support their growth. They won’t all blossom into strong plants, but many likely will. Even those who don’t succeed immediately will learn some of the realities of transforming an idea into a product. And they’ll be back with a new idea and a better strategy to make it happen.

“I think BURST is good news because so many varied stakeholders have come together to support the program, and because we’ve had so many really good applications,” Leushner says.

Before arriving at TechAlliance, Leushner and Macaulay both worked on tech startups, with varying levels of success. “You spend a lot of time and money learning how to create a company and what due diligence is. This program gives you all that information and the funding to really pursue your idea,” Leushner says.

“And these companies are building things that are going to help people,” Macaulay adds. “Yes, it’s good for the economy and job creation, but it also creates products that do some good.”  Christopher Clark