Healthcare Innovation in Canada Hitting its Stride

The count is now in for this year’s Health Innovation Week at MaRS Discovery District. This year’s agenda grew from 24 to 37 events, ranging from investment in AI and health summits to early stage networking opportunities and medical research. The number of attendees was also impressive, jumping from 2,000 to more than 3,500, including investors, researchers and enterprise executives.

This increase is a clear indicator that the ecosystem for healthcare innovation is gaining momentum, says Ying Tam, managing director health venture services, MaRS Discovery District. “What is coming out of R&D in areas such as stem cell regeneration, DNA and synthetic biology is continuing at incredible speed. Digital health innovation in the areas of wearables and biomedical engineering coming from the ecosystem is also driving huge momentum.”

Ideas are coming from more than just research labs, he adds. “Hackathons, innovation hubs, incubators and accelerators are popping up everywhere. The pervasiveness of technology and platforms is allowing everything to go faster.”

Canada has also become a significant talent magnet in the field over the past two years. Tam contends that the science, ideas and resources in Toronto alone are comparable to Boston and San Francisco. “The deal flows are definitely happening here,” he says.

This commercialization activity is promising for an industry that has long productivity cycles and is very capital intensive, says Allan Miranda, head of JLABS @ Canada. “The new companies we are working with now are focused on areas such as mobile wellness, digital prevention and interception of diseases, and patient engagement.”

This flurry of activity was not always the case. Saurabh Mukhi, CTO of Think Research in Toronto, says there is a fundamental shift in the healthcare innovation space that has changed the landscape considerably in recent years on the technology, clinical research, and process fronts.

Underlying technologies such as AI, machine learning and blockchain are starting to be leveraged in healthcare to move innovation forward, he explains. “On the clinical side, we have shifted from symptomatic-based to evidence-based medicine. Now that is transitioning to precision-based medicine, in which healthcare information is considered in a broader patient context, taking into account geographical, social, environmental and genetic factors, among others. Also, technologies are now being built that allow clinicians and practitioners to leverage and analyze data at the point of care to accelerate workflow processes.”

Another major driver behind the ideas being generated today is virtualization of assets, he adds. “A big segment of our population will be supported virtually. Tools, technologies and services are being developed to augment the support gap that exists. It is the precise connectivity of these data elements that will enable the appropriate use and full realization of a new breed of technologies in machine learning and blockchain.”

Mukhi believes that beyond those underlying factors, Canada’s healthcare system has a huge advantage moving forward. “Our central care model for one is not a competitive system, and we have legacy systems that are silos of rich data that can be shared. These are exciting times as we see more and more end-to-end connectivity of all those data elements.”

What excites Mukhi most is that much of the innovation is coming from startups, many of whom have experienced pain points in the systems. “Big corporations are not based on that. Governments are also supporting innovative companies by reducing barriers to entry and creating a path to success for the most valuable innovations. As a result, we are seeing more meaningful and exciting things being developed. But there is still a huge uphill battle for startups trying to navigate the complex privacy, security and legal requirements.

Naheed Kurji, president and CEO of Cyclica Inc., a JLABS resident, confirms the past two years have seen some significant movement. “Indisputably we have some of the smartest scientists in the world, and companies are now able to attract capital. A lot of investors are getting involved.”

Kurji has seen the acceleration first hand in his time with Cyclica. He first came across the founders in 2011 when the idea was 10 slides in a business case competition at the University of Toronto Business School. “It was just a pitch then, but the company evolved from that.”

In those seven years, technology and algorithms and the way of solving problems has evolved dramatically. “In Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo, and Vancouver we are seeing more medical devices and the evolution of robotics and AI to support physicians, practitioners and surgeons. Advances in electronic medical records are allowing physicians to leverage data on the spot to make better diagnoses and prescription decisions.”

Toronto is particularly blessed, having 13 hospitals, many of which are recognized globally for their research, Kurji notes. “However what is most important is not just the research and invention, but commercialization. Ten years ago a commercialization ecosystem simply didn’t exist. Consider that insulin was discovered 10 blocks from here yet all the monetization ended up stateside. That has been a pretty consistent story for Canada. Those are decisions that researchers rightfully made when the ecosystem was shaky and not built on a strong foundation.”

In recent years groups such as the Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD), Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), MaRS Discovery District, the Vector Institute, Quebec Consortium for Drug Discovery (CQDM), and JLABs @ Toronto are doing their part to turn the tide, Kurji says. “These are important vehicles to ensure scientist have more than a research idea with potential. They provide the opportunity and means to translate that into something significant. Is it enough? I would say no – but it’s a start.”

With Canada’s reputation on the ascendancy on both the medical research and technology sides of the equation, investors are finally taking notice “Indisputably we have some of the smartest scientists in the world,” Kurji says. “The AI community is an important piece in the drug discovery and development pipeline as well as areas such as electronic medical records.”

In recent months there has been some major private investments with entrepreneurs that grabbed attention, such as Deep Genomics which received a $16M funding round led by Khosla Ventures. Cyclica for its part has raised over $7.0M from funds such as GreenSky Capital and Epic Capital.

“It just takes one or two events to attract more opportunities,” Kurji says. “Now even the big pharmaceuticals who would not have set foot in Toronto three or four years ago are getting more involved. The vectors of influence are all pointing north to Canada.”