887 words | 3 minutes
Dr. Kumanan Wilson, CEO of CANImmunize, figures he was probably the first person in Canada to say the country was going to need digital immunization certificates. Wilson made this statement in an interview with CBC Sports and then another on CBC Radio’s political show The House.
CANImmunize is an Ottawa-based technology company that has been developing immunization software for a decade, long before COVID-19 was unleashed on the world. “It’s been a long battle, but it’s always been an inevitability that we’d have digital immunization certificates,” Wilson says.
Wilson, alongside being CEO of CANImmunize, is also a general internal medicine specialist at The Ottawa Hospital, an innovation advisor at Bruyere and a professor of medicine at The University of Ottawa.
Ten years ago, he and a small team at The Ottawa Hospital created the first digital immunization app in the world. “We know this because Apple got in touch and said they were waiting for someone to do this,” Wilson says of his app that allowed Canadians to keep track of their immunizations digitally, and reminded them when they were due for next doses. “The solution was initially for Ontario and then we received two batches of federal funding to take it across Canada and make it cloud-based.”
In early 2020, the company spun out of The Ottawa Hospital, just before COVID-19 hit North America. “Because of our 10 years in the space, we had a good sense of what would be needed for the Canadian market,” he says.
In the Fall of 2020, before COVID-19 vaccines were available, CANImmunize piloted a mass immunization software solution, supported by the CAN Health Network, for the flu clinic at Bruyere, an academic health-care provider in Ottawa. Soon after, the government of Nova Scotia approached CANImmunize after realizing it too would need to launch a mass-immunization software solution.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America, multinational competitors got involved in digital immunization, too. “Our competitors are major corporations,” Wilson says. “But CANImmunize’s advantage is that it knows the world’s immunization software needs,” he says.
One thing they knew was that if employees were ever to return to workplaces, those workplaces would need a solution. Enter CANImmunize Shield, a product that helps workplaces understand the vaccination status of employees and then uses that information to protect more vulnerable employees.
To address the workplace challenge, Wilson and CANImmunize found a pilot partner in Invest Ottawa and worked to create CANImmunize Shield.
“Invest Ottawa gave us credibility because we had a pilot partner,” Wilson says. “They navigated relationships in Ottawa that allowed us to get the City of Ottawa involved. They were our first major client. From there, we also got Export Development Canada (EDC) on board and a few others.”
The solution asks employees to voluntarily provide their immunization records to an employer, which can then, knowing who’s vaccinated and who isn’t, inform the unvaccinated to stay home during outbreaks. Having worked with various governments on a vaccination app over a 10-year period, Wilson and his team understand privacy laws as well as digital immunization records. “Only individuals who need to have access do,” he says.
Help from Invest Ottawa has been critical, Wilson says. In the beginning, the company was too small for the Accelerator program, and accessed some of the business consulting services in the community program. And soon, it was too big for Accelerator and went directly to the ScaleUp program.
“There was a lot of learning,” says Wilson, who has three other jobs, including in-hospital patient care. Medicine and policy, not business, are his forte. “I didn’t have much understanding of this from a business perspective,” he says.
“What I’ve learned is that when you’re a smaller company, you need a demonstrated pilot and you have to take all the risk,” Wilson says. “Having a brand name partner up front is very helpful. Without that Bruyere pilot, this company doesn’t exist. Without Invest Ottawa saying ‘we’re prepared to be your partner,’ the Shield solution doesn’t exist. The City of Ottawa contract led to other companies coming on board.”
Wilson calls Invest Ottawa “a friendly ally and partner” in this undertaking. CANImmunize also recognized the evolving nature of technology and applied to the ENCQOR program to understand how 5G would impact Shield. “We’re working on building models to heat-map the workplace, to know who the at-risk workers are and then we can even project forward so we can get ahead of this before there’s an outbreak,” he says. “That’ll be the next phase of this solution.” The software has the potential to take into consideration a number of variables through a concept Wilson refers to as precision immunity.
As part of the program, CANImmunize received increased support from Invest Ottawa. “Marketing adviser Stephen Beamish was really helpful in navigating issues of communication and giving us insights about how to deal with competition,” Wilson says. “I just needed that support, to be honest.”
Several other Invest Ottawa consultants have helped with critical lead-generation. And soon, the company, which has so far bootstrapped the whole endeavour, will be creating an investment strategy. Over the course of those successes, the company grew from five employees to its current roster of 53.
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