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Southlake teams with innovators to solve problems, boost economy

Playing with teddy bears isn’t exactly what springs to mind when you think of healthcare innovation, but as Andrew Eckford rolls a teddy bear around on a desk, you start to see how a small matchbox-sized pod strapped to the plush toy could make a big difference for patients and healthcare costs.

Eckford’s company, Engage Biomechanics, developed the pod to track a bedridden patient’s movements with the goal of reducing pressure ulcers and falls, both of which can keep patients in hospital longer and needlessly cost the healthcare system millions of dollars every year.

“It’s a great idea,” says Gary Ryan, Chief Innovation Officer at Southlake Regional Health Centre. “But there were many barriers to getting the pod off the bear and onto patients, notably getting access to a hospital environment in which to test the device with real patients, doctors, and nurses. That’s where we come in.”

Three years ago, Southlake Regional Health Centre launched a healthcare incubator in collaboration with municipal and academic partners to foster innovation in the healthcare sector. Called CreateIT Now at Southlake, the incubator offers innovators access to a large community hospital and the clinicians that work there. It’s an offer that is gaining the attention of more than a few startups, as well as some established companies that are looking for a foothold in the North American healthcare market.

Engage Biomechanics is not alone in facing barriers to accessing hospitals and clinicians. In fact, 90 percent of healthcare startups in Ontario fail in large part because they don’t have access to the healthcare system while developing their product. “With no early adopters, no first sales, and no foothold in Ontario’s complex procurement system, too often these companies don’t get their products to market,” says Pat Clifford, director of research and innovation at Southlake.

This sobering reality spurred Southlake to focus their innovation efforts on helping entrepreneurs get into the market. “We were concerned that devices and technologies that could have a real benefit for our patients might be lost if these business don’t succeed,” says Dr. Dave Williams, Southlake’s president and CEO. “To counter this, we focused on developing a business incubator and launched CreateIT Now at Southlake.”

Barriers to start ups not only frustrate entrepreneurs, but also contribute to a national innovation gap. While Canada ranks third among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in per capita spending on research, the country ranks 13th when it comes to commercializing that research.

In launching CreateIT Now, Southlake partnered with ventureLAB, one of Ontario’s 14 Regional Innovation Centres that help entrepreneurs develop their businesses, the Town of Newmarket and the Region of York, who saw the hospital as an economic engine that could be revved up to develop the regional economies. Seneca College and York University are also key partners.

To begin laying a pipeline, Southlake and ventureLAB collaborated to develop the Healthcare Ecospheres – a Dragon’s Den-style innovation pipeline that has startups pitch their products to hospital and ventureLAB staff as a way to quickly connect with entrepreneurs. In the first two years Southlake chose to work with 14 companies through the ecosphere process, including Engage Biomechanics.

“The ecosphere showed us there are many promising companies using technology in ways that could make a difference for our patients, but they’re challenged to break into the healthcare sector, so it also proved there is a demand for a community-hospital-based incubator,” says Ryan. The incubator has found more demand than initially expected, having now worked with more than 40 client companies whose devices and technologies are at every stage of development – most coming through word-of-mouth referrals.

With the momentum building, CreateIT Now is opening offices on the Southlake Campus in Newmarket, Ontario, offering clients low-cost working and meeting space, just steps from the main hospital. Space that encourages entrepreneurs to share ideas is a hallmark of successful incubators, so CreateIT Now is co-located with Southlake’s Research and Innovation team and ventureLAB’s new satellite office.

The office offers desks, offices, and common meeting space, as well as access to the ultra-high speed Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION). With a permanent home, the future is looking bright for the incubator.

“CreateIT Now is a model for hospitals of the future,” says Dr. Williams. “Fostering healthcare technology is a catalyst to a more sustainable healthcare system.”

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