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Developing next-gen Canadian medical device entrepreneur

By Dave Webb

Mravyan, an electrical engineer, and Will Mann, a biochemist he met when both were earning their MBAs at Western University’s Richard Ivey School of Business, approached the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute to identify health problems that some technological innovation could help improve.“We wanted to do something real and useful,” Mravyan says.

Toronto Rehab, part of the University Health Network, identified pressure sores as a serious problem. Common to bedridden and wheelchair-bound patients, these painful ulcers develop with prolonged, unrelieved contact with a surface. Aside from the pain, pressure sores open up avenues for serious and potentially fatal infections. With Canada’s population aging, it is becoming a more common health issue.

Mravyan and Mann (who has since moved to another company) created SENSIMAT Systems Inc. With Toronto Rehab, they began work on SENSIMAT, a system that combines a thin, pressure sensitive mat wirelessly connected to monitoring software to help ensure patients were following their pressure-relief regimen. “Think of it as a FitBit for wheel chairs,” Mravyan says.

SENSIMAT can be retrofitted to wheelchair seat pads. Software alarms tell the patient when he or she is due for a pressure relief, and monitors whether the correct action – say, a right lean – is performed. If patients perform their reliefs themselves on schedule, there’s no alarm, so there’s also an element of conditioning, Mravyan says.

With the concept product this far along, the company turned to George Brown College to help complete the bigger picture: how the product would perform in a clinical environment, like a hospital or continuing care facility.

Nursing students from George Brown’s Centre for Health Sciences learn in a technologically sophisticated environment. At the college’s three-year-old waterfront campus in Toronto, simulation suites, with mannequins wired to exhibit systems and react to intervention, put students in situations they may encounter in the real world. Alongside, a 60-bed, five-ward simulated hospital serves as a practice lab for learning practices and procedures, as well as exposing students to cutting-edge technology.

It’s the simulated hospital where healthcare device entrepreneurs like Mravyan have the opportunity to further develop their products as they attempt to bring them to market.

After George Brown’s Advanced Prototyping Lab had helped redesign the hardware and printed circuit board, students and faculty from the Centre for Health Sciences designed scenarios that simulated real-life conditions, while SENSIMAT collected wireless data over a three-month period.

“The interesting part about this is that it’s being conducted as part of the third year Bachelor of Science program,” says Robert Luke, PhD, Vice-President of Research and Innovation at George Brown. “It’s a kind of experiential learning. We think this has real benefits, not just for the company, but for the students, who gain practical experience and needed innovation skills.”

“The study at George Brown went really well,” Mravyan says. “We collected a lot of data.” So much so, in fact, that SENSIMAT now has the world’s largest mobile seating database. Mravyan is still sifting through the data for each scenario, examining in aggregate how effectively and efficiently the hospital performed. This kind of analysis has implications for medical institutions in terms of monitoring practices, wringing out efficiencies and identifying at risk patients. For example, if Mr. Smith in Room 425 hasn’t moved in eight hours, a nurse can be sent to intervene.

The development of SENSIMAT isn’t the first healthtech development project George Brown has taken on, says Luke. George Brown has worked with (or is working with) companies developing hand hygiene compliance systems, real-time location systems, heart monitoring vests, passive surveillance systems for monitoring in-home care, and more. The Office of Research and Innovation also works with companies across disciplines, including engineering, food sciences, green technology and game design.

“Colleges and polytechnics like George Brown are funded to work with industry specifically because we can help them get their innovations to market,” Luke says. “We have access to skills and talents in the form of our students and faculty, machinery and equipment in our prototyping facilities, and our simulation centre for healthcare where we can test products.”

Entrepreneurs come to the college in a variety of ways, some directly, others through referrals from organizations like non-profit innovation hub MaRS Discovery District.

“We get a fair amount of clients through MaRS, as we’re plugged into the ecosystem,” Luke says. “We also do a fair amount of work with scientists from the universities around us helping them create products and prototypes. It’s a very collaborative and complementary system.”

This stewardship of innovation is critical in healthcare, which eats up an unsustainable 49 percent of the public purse in Canada. But it’s also important to the economy as a whole.

“Canada is great at research. We have world-leading research institutions, we have a lot to be proud of, but we’re not so good at business investment in R&D,” Luke says. “We’re top of the G8 in per capita spending on research, but bottom of the G8 for business spending. What we are trying to do is help businesses realize that innovation, spending on R&D, getting these products to market, is essential to a vibrant economy. The recent collapse of oil prices shows us we cannot rely on resource extraction … we need to innovate. And one thing we do really well is healthcare – from research to practice. Combining this expertise with industry receptivity and responsiveness to industry innovation creates a world class ecosystem for launching new products and services in support of healthcare innovation.”

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