Edmonton was perhaps over-represented in this year's Canada Chicago Mentorship Program (C2MP), a prestigious piece of teamwork between the country and its neighbour to the south. Last February, 20 Canadian med-tech businesses applied for the program's five spots.
“We were very impressed with their applications,” Chantal Glass, trade commissioner at the Canadian consulate in Chicago said of the three companies that made it into the C2MP.
“We were not necessarily aware that there were such great companies in med-tech in Alberta. It was a bit of an eye-opener for us.”
Back over the Canadian border, Edmonton's Health City initiative - formed in 2016 as an effort by Mayor Don Iveson - has recently “just got up and running,” said its CEO, Reg Joseph.
The group works with clinicians in the field who are trying to solve specific problems in large-scale public health issues, like youth mental health or the use of opioids in the suburbs. The organization partners innovators - both in and outside of the industry - with these clinicians to help co-develop solutions for public health problems.
“Traditionally in our system, health innovation is a bit of a challenge. By design, health systems are conservative and by design are very slow to adopt new innovations because they have to go through a very robust process,” Joseph said.
According to Joseph, Edmonton has some incredibly solid pillars that could make it a paragon of health research: AI, machine learning, and augmented and virtual reality to name a few. These are areas where the city competes either internationally or nationally, he added.
Despite these strengths, the city hasn't really deemed its healthcare innovation sector a major job builder so far, he said.
“We have a ton of strength in research and clinical expertise, but not so much in terms of health being a contributor to GDP.”
Health City receives operational funding through the City of Edmonton, and it has a number of innovation and economic development projects planned that bring other funders - including the provincial and federal government and industry and charitable groups - to the table.
The organization is currently working on two of these business-clinician partnerships, one of which is launching in May, and the other later this summer.
According to Myrna Bittner, CEO and founder of RWI, Edmonton needs to get better at connecting companies with export markets.
“An odd thing I think about a lot of technology companies in Edmonton is that their success is really elsewhere, and we really need to start collaborating in communities of success so these companies can know and share and be promoted,” she said.
RWI uses more than 20 years of artificial intelligence intellectual property to provide nuanced and accurate predictions and solutions to businesses with tricky and heavily connected systems - and it doesn't normally work in medicine.
As a company whose IP began from Bittner and her partner working for an Australian millionaire, RWI stands out in Edmonton's med-tech industry, whose businesses often find their roots at the University of Alberta. Plus, the technology isn't exactly med-tech, per se, although it can be used to help the industry.
“There's a lot of innovation people don't know about, and it's not always coming out of the university or Alberta Innovates or other commercialization programs,” she said.
For example, Edmonton's Nanostics wasn't one of the C2MP companies, but it has still made strides as a diagnostics technology company looking at extracellular vesicles, a recently discovered biomarker that floats around in the blood.
Most recently, the U of A offshoot announced its Clarity DX Prostate test, a simple diagnostic tool to check for aggressive prostate cancer.
“Right now, the screening test ... has an 80 per cent false positive rate, which sucks for men because if you get a false positive, the next step is a biopsy, which is 12 needles shoved through the rectum into the prostate,” said Nanostics CEO, John Lewis.
According to Lewis, in the past, Edmonton's academics have developed med-tech only for the IP to be purchased and marketed outside of the province.
“The further we can take innovations forward ... the more that value stays in Alberta,” he said.
Umay co-founder and CEO Ali Habib had just graduated from business school in 2010, and his sister, Sharmin Habib, had just become an optometrist when, during an eye exam, she told her brother that he had digital eye strain.
Human eyes have glands that go across the edge of the eyelid, and every time they blink, it releases an oil that covers the surface of the eye. When people reduce their blink rate while on the computer, these glands can get clogged.
“When you look into a computer screen, you stop blinking, essentially. Our blink rate reduces by 50, 70 per cent.”
Sharmin Habib, a co-founder of Umay, told her brother to put a warm, wet towel over his eyes for a few minutes. That simple concept became a solid wellness business in Edmonton's repertoire, leading to the development of a pair of eye covers that use waves of heat to help users rest and restore their eyes after a day of screen time. The company plans to be shipping out product by the end of the year.
As a wellness product - rather than a “heavy” piece of health tech - Umay hasn't benefited from Edmonton's strengths as much as other companies.
However, Ali Habib said, the province has a fairly traditional economy, and one of Umay's biggest struggles starting up came from its investment community, which tends to steer clear of risk.
“It's such a different conversation [in California]. Here, most guys will be like 'how do you get oil out of this?'” he said.
“I'm not sure if we need more programming. If anything, we need to change the mindset of the investors. What are we doing to help investors broaden their frames of reference?”