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U of A precision health and entrepreneurship platforms get a boost to accelerate innovation

Projects funded by Alberta Innovates will harness data-driven health technologies for better diagnostics and care.

  • May 03, 2021
  • By Keri Sweetman

UPDATE January 31 at 10 a.m.: The Alberta government announced $3 million in new funding from Alberta Innovates for the ADEPT project led by U of A researcher Michael Mengel. The funding will go toward establishing three "living labs" where health innovators across the province can test diagnostic technologies and access resources to help get their discoveries into clinical diagnostic testing labs faster. 

Three University of Alberta projects have received funding from Alberta Innovates aimed at accelerating health innovation in the province.

PRECISE, ADEPT and the University of Alberta Health Hub & Accelerator have been awarded support through the Health Innovation Platform Partnerships (HIPP) program. The program seeks to enable a health innovation ecosystem that is robust, co-ordinated and a competitive advantage for Alberta innovators in the digital health industry.

The initial HIPP contribution is $200,000 for nine months to allow the platform partners time to develop proof-of-concept and qualify for further funding.

Harnessing the power of AI for digital medicine

PRECISE—the Alberta PRECision health Innovation, reSearch and technology Ecosystem—will bring together U of A researchers in health, engineering, computing and social sciences, working with an industry and government partner alliance, to advance biomedical discovery, health-care delivery and digital medicine.

Project lead Daniel C. Baumgart is a professor and director of the Division of Gastroenterology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and founding member of the U of A’s Precision Health Signature Area. A digital innovation trailblazer, he believes strongly in combining the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and multiple sources of health, biomedical and other data to develop precision health for patients.

For Baumgart, Alberta is uniquely positioned to harness these forces because of its early investment in the provincial electronic medical records system, which provides a population-level database unavailable anywhere else.

“At the same time, we have the Nanotechnology Initiative, which develops tomorrow’s sensor technologies, and the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), where you have truly world-class AI scientists.”

Two model projects will get underway at PRECISE during the initial six months. One will involve wearables to monitor respiratory function at home. The other will develop AI-based algorithms to enable precise diagnosis and individual disease and treatment outcome prediction for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, commonly referred to as inflammatory bowel diseases. Both are expected to be eventually integrated into Connect Care, the provincial electronic medical records system.

The initial funding will help PRECISE develop a digital health innovation portal, hold an online idea competition and an annual exchange, engaging all stakeholders—citizens, empowered patients, academics, government and industry—to share their ideas about precision health and help refine the platform’s mission.

“Engaging the power of the community is important,” said Baumgart.

Partnering for precision diagnostics

Michael Mengel, chair of the U of A’s Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology, is the project leader for the Alberta Diagnostics Ecosystem Platform for Translation (ADEPT). This new provincewide precision diagnostics platform will break down barriers faced by universities and industry in bringing diagnostic innovation ideas to the marketplace.

Precision diagnostics are critical to good health care and there is significant research underway in universities and pharmaceutical companies around the world to develop new data-driven diagnostic tools. But it can take at least five to 10 years to bring new precision diagnostic devices and tests to the marketplace, due to technical and regulatory barriers.

Mengel worked with two other applicants—Alberta Precision Exchange (APEX) from the University of Calgary and DynaLife Diagnostics—to merge their project proposals into one platform.

“We all had similar proposals to take diagnostic innovations and accelerate development stages from bench discovery to clinical adoption and use,” said Mengel.

Mengel said the COVID-19 pandemic proved how critical it is to speed up diagnostic innovation.

“COVID-19 has shown how nimble and fast the system needs to be to adapt to big challenges. At the beginning, there was a dramatic need to expand diagnostic and testing capacity—and there still is, with the variants emerging.”

ADEPT will serve as the intake broker for diagnostic innovators in Alberta and beyond, providing access to real-world experience, biomaterial and data to help make promising innovations a reality sooner. It will offer innovators the resources of all its partners, including the precision health experts at U of A and U of C, as well as DynaLife and Alberta Precision Laboratories.

ADEPT will use its initial funding to identify 15 academic or industry teams currently conducting precision diagnostic research in Alberta. Over the next six months, the goal is to help these researchers advance their work to show Alberta Innovates how the platform can help push research forward. ADEPT will then apply for a further investment to establish three living laboratories across Alberta, where innovators could test new diagnostic technologies, with the hope of getting their discoveries into clinical diagnostic testing labs faster.

Building a strong startup community

The U of A’s Health Hub & Accelerator, which supports health and life science startups, will use the Alberta Innovates support to double its team to two full-time people and continue its successful intern program.

“We appreciate the recognition of the work that we’ve done and the potential of what we can do by being able to scale up the program,” said program manager Sandra Spencer.

There are currently 27 young companies on the roster between the program’s hands-on accelerator and the health hub—a community of health and life science entrepreneurs who are developing products.

Spencer says the initial HIPP funding will help eight to 10 of these companies participate in the Canadian Entrepreneurs in Life Sciences Valley Ready program, an accelerator run by Canadians in Silicon Valley, mainly as a landing pad for raising money in the U.S. market. They will also launch a talent membership in the fall, to join the community and build a talent pool.

The funding will allow the Health Hub & Accelerator to expand its services to anyone in northern Alberta, even if they are not affiliated with a university. Spencer hopes they can soon become an Alberta-wide community of health entrepreneurs within two years and continue to be a connector for this startup sector.

Find out more about the innovative precision health research happening at the U of A.