Ideas to Impact

It takes more than a great idea to launch a product. A new fellowship sponsored by the Health Innovation Hub (H2i) at the Faculty of Medicine is helping entrepreneurially minded students take their health-focused projects from ‘concept’ to ‘commercially viable’ prototype.

H2i is a health-centric business accelerator that’s part of a network of entrepreneurship programs at the University of Toronto. The Health Commercialization Awards support student creativity to improve health care and the ways it is delivered.

“Medicine has unique needs in the sense that we’re not just about commercialization,” says Joseph Ferenbok, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Surgery who co-Directs H2i with Paul Santerre, a Professor with the Faculty of Dentistry and the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering. “We want to support ideas that can impact people’s health in the broadest sense. The projects should have benefits to society either by directly or indirectly saving health care costs, creating jobs, generating revenue into the economy, or creating value to the health care system to improve people’s health or improve the quality of people’s lives.”

More than 50 students applied for the fellowship and seven finalists were chosen to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. The students were mentored on how to prepare – a strong concept pitch — like avoiding jargon and using clear language.  Ideas ranged from a smart pouch for birth control pills to a pacemaker power pack that converts blood glucose into electrical energy.

Sharon Gabison is one of three students awarded a $5000 fellowship. Gabison is a physiotherapist completing a PhD at the Institute of Medical Science. Her team’s project, the Pressure Ulcer Target, is an app that works with a ‘smart’ pressure mat helps people with a spinal cord injury (SCI) learn about — and avoid — pressure ulcers. The sores affect about 95 per cent of people with SCIs at some point in their lives. They develop because of prolonged pressure on the skin. The ulcers can become infected, require a person be hospitalized and — in the worst-case scenario — result in fatal complications. But people can prevent pressure ulcers by regularly changing position.

“Because of the sensory impairments caused by SCI, people may not feel a pressure ulcer developing,” says Gabison. “Many of these sores develop when people don’t expect them to — maybe they had to go on a long trip, or they had a crease in their pants, or they just forgot to do a weight shift and they got this pressure ulcer. Or maybe they didn’t even know it was so important.”

The app works with an existing device called a Sensimat that sits underneath a wheelchair cushion. Together, the technology teaches people how the sores develop, how long they take to heal, and how they can reduce their risk of getting a pressure ulcer. The technology also gives users reminders to shift their weight. Gabison says the Pressure Ulcer Target is the first app designed for patients and was developed with the physical limitations experienced by many people with SCI.

The fellowship will help Gabison and her team gather more data to determine the app’s utility. She also hopes to partner with SCI research associations.

“If we show this helps people with spinal cord injury, maybe it could help people with other conditions where people are immobile and confined to a wheelchair. It could also be given to caregivers for people who may not have the cognitive capacity to move themselves. Perhaps it could be translated into a bed system,” says Gabison.

The other inaugural fellowship winners are Mark Aquilino, who developed a low-cost 3D bioprinter, and Rob Pilipos, who has found a way to promote neurorepair via electrical stimulation.

H2i also plans to hold another event called Hacking Health Care, which will allow students from around campus to work on innovative solutions to improve health care delivery.  Winners of that challenge will receive fellowships to help build prototypes and test their ideas.