By Reza Moridi, Minister of Research and Innovation, Ontario, Canada
Continued discovery is the lifeblood of the life sciences sector. As researchers across the globe race to find the next disruptive treatment or technology, government has a critical role to play in creating the conditions for innovation to flourish.
Innovation thrives at the intersection of industry and government investments, government policy and regulation, and academic or institutional research. Innovations are often the result of careful planning, cooperation, and investment across all three sectors.
Strong government action has helped forge an innovative life sciences cluster in Ontario, Canada. Across the province, publicly funded research institutions are investigating promising new biomedical technologies, training young scientists, and working with industry partners. In Ontario, more than 100,000 researchers work on issues ranging from life-saving vaccines to robotic software and climatechange mitigation. Companies in Ontario have access to a wide range of government programs that can help accelerate growth and new-product development. The province also makes innovation affordable for industries through its R&D tax incentive program, which is available to qualified businesses of any size and applies to a range of eligible costs that is broader than in the U.S. and many other countries.
EXAMPLES OF GOVERNMENT-LED COLLABORATION
Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) is a prime example of how government-led collaboration can have a direct impact on innovation. Before OCE was incorporated in 2004 and brought numerous sectorspecific centres of excellence under one roof, collaboration between universities, colleges, research hospitals, and industry was limited. Consensus was that these academic and research institutions were producing quality research that was not being used to its full potential by industry. The core strength of OCE is its ability to bring academia and industry together as prospective partners and turn ideas into income. OCE co-invests alongside its industry partners to commercialize innovation originating in the province’s publicly funded colleges, universities, and research hospitals in the segments of the economy that will drive Ontario’s future prosperity and global competitiveness, such as advanced health technologies. Fueled by government, OCE is a key partner in delivering Ontario’s Innovation Agenda.
Another example of Ontario’s industry collaboration is MaRS Innovation, a highly specialized commercialization hub based in Toronto. MaRS Innovation was designed to accelerate the path to market for great research ideas. At the time of its inception, MaRS Innovation was completely unprecedented and spoke to the readiness of the academic, healthcare, and research communities in Ontario to unleash the benefits of clustering. This willingness to experiment has enabled MaRS Innovation to bundle research assets together, from both a scientific and business perspective, while keeping the individual integrity of the intellectual property intact.
MaRS also supports life sciences innovation and commercialization through Excellence in Clinical Innovation and Technology Evaluation (EXCITE). EXCITE is a collaboration between a range of stakeholders in the health technology sector. It was created to harmonize health technology evaluation into a single, premarket, evidence-based evaluation process for innovations with disruptive potential and specific relevance to health system priorities. EXCITE evaluates medical technologies in the premarket phase of development, and this contextual evidence can both align industrial technology innovation with health system demands and improve the quality and relevance of technologies still in development. It also helps streamline adoption by the healthcare system, resulting in lower healthcare costs and increased patient benefits.
THE BENEFITS OF ONTARIO’S LIFE SCIENCES CLUSTER
In addition to EXCITE, Ontario’s life sciences cluster also benefits from the Health Technology Exchange (HTX). HTX manages a $21.4 million fund on behalf of the Ontario government to finance emerging and established Ontario-based companies to develop, produce, and commercialize innovative market-leading advanced health technologies. Since 2011, HTX has approved 26 projects for funding, investing $9.8 million into public/private commercialization projects worth $46 million. Ontario’s investment in the HTX has also fostered the creation of more than 200 jobs.
Another innovation driver for Ontario is the Voucher for Industry Association (VIA) R&D Challenge, part of Ontario’s Collaboration Voucher Program. VIA connects industry associations or groups of companies with Ontario’s publicly funded academic research institutions to address sectorwide research and development challenges. VIA projects focus on challenges identified by an industry sector where business solutions have demonstrable global market potential. Project outcomes include commercialization and increased productivity with significant economic impact for Ontario and program partners. Companies may use research results to their own and/or their supply chain’s commercial advantage.
HEALTHCARE INNOVATION/ COLLABORATION SUCCESS STORIES
Beyond the desire to improve productivity, a more tangible and immediate benefit of innovation is the ability to solve challenges in healthcare. Both practitioners and policy makers are looking for new technologies to help solve critical, worldwide healthcare challenges. Rising healthcare costs are one of the most critical issues. Many jurisdictions are implementing programs directed toward gaining efficiencies and constraining cost escalation. Ontario is no different. Many Ontario-based start-ups are focused on developing portable, affordable diagnostic devices designed to keep healthcare costs down.
A few of these promising innovations include ApneaDx Inc., an at-home sleep monitoring system, and Otosim, a medical training simulator that dramatically improves diagnostic accuracy rates.
Prior to the introduction of ApneaDx in 2012, spending a night in a sleep lab (polysomnography) was the goldstandard for diagnosing sleep apnea. ApneaDx addresses the market need for a clinical-quality sleep apnea monitoring system that can be easily used by patients at home. ApneaDx provides sleep-lab-quality data with minimal inconvenience (e.g. no wires, bulky equipment, cumbersome setup, etc.). The device will cost a fraction of the price of a sleep lab visit or other home monitoring systems. ApneaDx obtained EXCITE premarket evaluation in 2013 and has successfully raised $500,000 in seed funding from MaRS Innovation, the Ontario Brain Institute, and Johnson & Johnson.
For years, general practitioners and pediatricians have used an otoscope to screen for illness in the outer and middle ear. However, diagnostic accuracy with this tool is typically less than 50 percent. Enter OtoSim. The OtoSim system is for training medical students and involves a small simulator unit with an opening that resembles a life-sized human ear canal. The ear form has a realistic feel and shape. The student uses a traditional otoscope to look inside the unit where images of ear canals and tympanic membranes (ear drums) are displayed. The instructor’s laptop or desktop computer, which is connected to the OtoSim unit via a USB cable, holds a library with hundreds of images of common ear pathologies. The key to OtoSim’s training success is that it enables the instructor and medical student to simultaneously review the same images. The instructor monitors what the student is seeing and is able to provide specific directions and feedback.
In the less than two years since OtoSim was launched, hospitals and medical schools in more than a dozen countries have snapped up these training units. OtoSim’s rapid worldwide acceptance can be traced back to investment and support from MaRS Innovation.
Not all innovations are inexpensive, but some can be life-changing. For example, for the estimated 187 million people worldwide who live with low vision, eSight is truly life-changing. A new class of wearable assistive technology, eSight, is helping the blind to see. For some, it means being able to read a book or watch a sporting event for the first time in years. For others, it opens new job opportunities. The eSight system has two lightweight components: a headset and a controller. In the headset, a forward-pointing, high-resolution video camera sends a signal to the controller. An algorithm converts the data to match the wearer’s preferences, and the signal is sent back to LED displays on the inner surface of the headset.
To develop eSight, the founder assembled a team of leading experts from both the medical and engineering worlds. The team benefitted greatly from being located in Ottawa, known as “Silicon Valley North” as it is home to numerous high-tech companies. It is also home to one of Canada’s top research centres in ophthalmology, the Eye Institute at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, which was brought in early in eSight’s development.
Over the past few years, eSight’s radical new vision technology was developed and refined with the help of experts from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the University of Waterloo’s School of Vision, Lighthouse International, the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and many others. The wearable assistive device is licensed by both Health Canada and the U.S. FDA. It has generated interest from as far away as South America and the Middle East.
Ontario has worked hard to create the conditions where we can capture lightning in a bottle and bring exciting new medical advances to the rest of the world. It is a testament to the nearly unlimited potential of collaboration.