By: Avis Favaro
Every tool used in healthcare today started with an idea. “How do I solve this problem? “How do we help this patient?”
I’ve had the honour of meeting eight Canadian entrepreneurs and business leaders based in Ottawa who have generated inspiring ideas that are transforming health care.
With great determination and, in some cases, personal sacrifice, their persistence is paying off. They have businesses that are growing and will help people in Canada. And in some cases, other parts of the world.
Not surprisingly, several of the ventures we profiled focus on services for those in Canada who struggled through the pandemic – seniors, caregivers and those with mental health problems and addictions.
Here’s a snapshot of key takeaways from the incredible conversations of Season 11 of the Invested In Our New Reality podcast.
For Audrey Bond, it started with her elderly parents, as she struggled to share health information. A note on a napkin became the map to her company Vaultt. It’s an idea so simple yet so powerful – allowing people to bring their medical files with them to appointments and emergency visits to the hospital. She now has partnerships with two large firms and other projects in the wings. Go Audrey!
The pandemic had a devastating effect on seniors isolated in long-term care or retirement homes. Elizabeth Audette-Bourdeau watched as her grandfather entered a retirement home and slowly lost his vitality. She saw the need to boost connections and socialization. Welbi is her answer – a company that lets senior living communities personalize their recreation and wellness care. And the industry is buying in because happier residents are healthier.
Varsha Chaugai wanted to make sure families had health information about a loved one living in a senior residence or long-term care home. Her company is called Evoke Health, which is a program now offered by some senior residences to allow family members to see health information, care plans, medications and lab notes. It eliminates multiple calls from the person’s family and frees up staff time for hands-on care. A passionate entrepreneur, I was struck by Varsha’s energy, determination and her candour.
An estimated 5 million Canadians are caregivers. Many take on the heavy load of caring for an ailing or aging parent, spouse or family member with dementia or chronic illnesses with little to no preparation. Yet its work is often done by professionally trained nurses or PSW’s. That’s why Jonathan Davis set up Trualta. Again the idea is so obvious – but no one had thought of it before. The company helps train the caregivers! Trualta’s programs are being offered by hospitals and other health groups in 30 U.S. states as well as assisting families across Canada. I had a fascinating discussion with Jonathan, who talked about the low points of trying to sell the idea, which involved long trips and many cold calls. But he didn’t give up and now is watching his company grow exponentially!
Canadians with mental health problems and addictions are caught in a difficult spot. There often aren’t enough services to help them, or the supports are sporadic, while these struggles can run 24-7. Enter TryCycle Data Systems. This company offers a smartphone app that connects clients dealing with mental illnesses and addictions with clinicians who are available at the push of the app. I spoke with Senior Vice President of Operations Kelly Gregoire about how demand for this online support service is growing and the relief it brings clients and their health providers.
Another fascinating episode involved a critical shortage of a vital medical tool – medical isotopes. You can’t get critical scans or some cancers treated without nuclear isotopes and a shortage means lives are in the balance. Ottawa-based BWXT Medical found a way to make a particular isotope using an existing nuclear reactor, offering the promise of a steady supply for patients in Canada and around the world. Rachel Pickering, BWXT Medical’s Vice President of Commercial Medical Operations, explained the complexities of this business venture simply and clearly!
Home medical testing, swabs, and the equipment needed to get samples isn’t the sexiest topic. But when you hear the story of Orasure you’ll understand about how the small things make for a big medical advance. The company makes the swabs and equipment that collect DNA and microbiome samples. Rafal Iwasiow, the VP of science innovation and technology, explains how the company was quickly able to supply the tools needed for Covid Home tests early in the pandemic. This Canadian firm was even lauded by US President Joe Biden for its progressive work. A little-known but important Canadian success story with Roots in Ottawa!
Finally, the story of how medical physicist Justin Sutherland played a video game and came up with a very cool idea. Why not let surgeons use a set of VR goggles and put themselves inside the patient? That world is created by adapting the medical scans needed to plan surgery into a 3D virtual world. The doctors don’t even have to be in the same city to plan complex operations. They can all meet in this virtual room created by Realize Medical. Just before we spoke, Justin’s company received clearance from the FDA to sell their VR software (Elucis) for surgical planning in the U.S.
What did I learn from talking to these entrepreneurs?
Good ideas come from many places. Video games, ailing parents, and crises become fodder for solutions to help others.
I was in awe of the courage and patience embodied by our guests. They also taught me about the important role of business incubators like Invest Ottawa in coaching and supporting startups. New ventures may be exciting, but they are very hard work.
My biggest takeaway is that there are so many inspiring stories fueling future changes in health care, like the ones featured in season 11. They must be shared to encourage other Canadians to step forward with their ideas, whether scribbled on a paper napkin or born in a virtual game.
Ideas can become a reality.