By Annie Webb and Margaret Polanyi
For anyone with an interest in technology and aging, the AGE-WELL National Impact Challenge: Startup Edition will be remembered as one of the most exciting pitch competitions in 2019.
Launched in May, the competition was all about recognizing top startups and supporting entrepreneurship in Canada’s technology and aging sector. Five finalists pitched at each of three regional events held in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, explaining how their technology-based solution can support healthy aging.
Each winner receives $15,000 in cash plus in-kind prizes.
And the winners are…
Walk-Well Universe won the Montreal regional competition with a pitch delivered by Ahmed Abou-Sharkh, a physiotherapist and a PhD candidate at McGill University. Walk-Well Universe is dedicated to developing health technologies that address unsafe walking, which can lead to falls and fall-related injuries like fractures. Walk-Well Universe is a part of Physio Biometrics Inc.
The research team also includes Drs. Nancy Mayo and Kedar Mate, both at McGill University’s School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, and Dr. Edward Hill, a computer engineer. They designed, developed and are currently testing and commercializing their main product, the Heel2Toe sensor. Walk-Well Universe also includes other supporting products to maximize the potential benefit of the sensor.
“The sensor goes on the user’s shoe and the auditory feedback that is given for each correct step stimulates neural connections in the brain to make the improved gait and step more permanent,” explains Abou-Sharkh.
“The Heel2Toe sensor is designed to make walking more efficient and safer so that once people walk better, they will walk more,” he says. “Walking is the safest and most cost-effective way for people to be physically active. But, people who don’t walk well are unlikely to walk for exercise and recreation, jeopardizing their independence and quality of life.”
Winning the AGE-WELL competition is a boost, says Abou-Sharkh. “We need to get the product out there and known. We will benefit from AGE-WELL’s services for our commercialization efforts and to advance the company.”
True Angle Medical Technologies
The winner of the Vancouver competition was True Angle Medical Technologies, based in Edmonton. The company developed the Mobili-T, a swallowing therapy system for older adults with swallowing difficulties. The pitch in Vancouver was delivered by Dr. Gabi Constantinescu, Chief Product Officer and a clinician-researcher with a decade of experience assessing and treating swallowing difficulties.
“The Mobili-T system takes the therapy out of the clinic and into the hands of patients,” she says. Mobili-T is a wireless piece of hardware that is placed under the chin, and an app that provides real-time feedback on a mobile device.
“The patient can go home and complete therapy that is very similar if not identical to what is done in clinic. They are being remotely followed by a clinician rather than having to drive to the clinic, look for parking etc.”
Dr. Constantinescu’s team includes CEO Dr. Jana Rieger and CTO Dylan Scott, who helped launch the company and develop the system with the involvement of patients and clinicians. The team estimates that their technology will allow clinicians to see seven times as many patients. And there is a pressing need: it is estimated that 20 per cent of people over age 55 experience swallowing difficulties.
The AGE-WELL award will help to commercialize the Mobili-T system, says Dr. Constantinescu. “The prize money will support the next rounds of testing and studies, as well as the prototypes required for these. There will also be support and mentorship opportunities around commercialization as well as development.”
She calls the AGE-WELL competition a “valuable initiative.”
“There are a lot of ideas and startups out there, but it’s very difficult to move to the next step into a full-blown company. It’s nice to know that Canada is looking to fund innovation beyond research and into commercialization so those in need can access these technologies.”
Bisep, a Niagara Falls-based startup, won the Toronto competition for a device that attaches an individual’s wheelchair directly to their walker to assist with ambulation. In his winning pitch, Bisep Founder and President Daniel Bordenave said he was inspired to invent the device while working as a kinesiologist at a long-term care facility. Due to limited staff, funding and equipment, Bordenave couldn’t do daily mobility and ambulation training with the elderly residents. He found this unacceptable, given health risks associated with sedentary behaviour.
Bordenave set out to devise a solution. “I got together with my grandfather, who was a tool and die maker, and created a prototype.” The result: the ARMM (Ambulation, Retraining and Mobility Mechanism), which provides lateral and posterior support for a person to transfer from wheelchair to walker, and allows the user to safely practice daily exercises. There’s no need for extra staff to trail behind with a wheelchair at the ready.
According to a recent study, nursing home residents who used the ARMM walked faster, further and with more confidence than those who did not use the device.
The AGE-WELL prize will help Bordenave manufacture more devices, fill pre-orders, promote and bring the device to market by 2020. “It’s a dream come true,” he told an audience of more than 100 people. The Toronto competition was held at Zoomer Hall and will be the focus of a special episode of theZoomer, hosted by Libby Znaimer, in coming months.
AGE-WELL congratulates the winners and welcomes them to the network where their innovations will be nurtured to have the greatest impact possible. We thank all the finalists, the judges and also the sponsors of the competition: BC Seniors Living Association, CARP, Fasken, Hacking Health, The Impact Centre at the University of Toronto, MEDTEQ, Ontario Brain Institute, TELUS Ventures and YouAreUNLTD.
Annie Webb is a freelance writer. Margaret Polanyi is Senior Communications Manager at AGE-WELL, a federally-funded Network of Centres of Excellence. The pan-Canadian network brings together researchers, older adults, caregivers, partner organizations and future leaders to accelerate the delivery of technology-based solutions for healthy aging. For more information, visit www.agewell-nce.ca