Inventing the Solution

    A group at the U of A wants to pick up the pace when it comes to inventions with practical applications

    By Eliza Barlow on December 5, 2011

    A group at the U of A wants to pick up the pace when it comes to inventions with practical applications

    Robert Burrell

    Robert Burrell: “Only one in 1,000 ideas actually becomes a commercial product.”

    The University of Alberta has had some success in the past with good ideas hatched from University research taken to the marketplace through campus spin-off companies. Such initiatives include Onware, founded in 2002 to provide project management software; Micralyne, a company that produces Micro-Electronic-Mechanical-Systems to make miniscule three-dimensional devices; and CV Technologies, whose most well-known product is ColdFX.

    All of these companies started at the U of A, although perhaps not in the way AiiMiT—the Alberta Initiative for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology—hopes they may take shape in the future. AiiMiT launched a three-prong initiative in the spring of 2010 that will look for technological developments that address health burden challenges; build careers in the health technology sector; and support researcher-industry engagement in the medical technology industry for Alberta.

    “Quite a bit of the research that occurs at the University is curiosity-driven,” says Robert Burrell, chair of biomedical engineering in the faculties of engineering, medicine and dentistry, and Canada Research Chair in nanostructural biomaterials. “But AiiMiT is not about curiosity-driven research. AiiMiT is about solving problems. You have a problem and you try to find a solution to that problem.”

    Part of the initiative behind AiiMiT—whose two sponsoring faculties are the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry—is instigating a shift away from low-risk research to the higher-risk research crucial to breaking into the corporate world. “Only about one in 1,000 ideas actually becomes a commercial product,” notes Burrell. “So, in a sense, the research is high-risk because you’re looking for that one in 1,000 idea.”

    Burrell himself is the inventor of Acticoat antimicrobial wound dressings, the world’s first commercial therapeutic application of nanotechnology now used in over 40 countries around the world to prevent life-threatening infections and promote wound healing. Burrell developed the nanostructured silver bandage—in the pre-AiiMiT era—with privately owned Westaim Biomedical of Fort Saskatchewan, AB, and the U of A Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

    But if Acticoat were to be invented today, it probably would have found its way through AiiMiT’s door. “AiiMiT will provide balance in supporting the health technology commercialization pipeline by ensuring that technology push from more basic research is balanced by clinical or market pull identified by clinicians, patients and family members,” says Shawn Drefs, ’01 BSc, ’07 MSc, certificate program coordinator in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and AiiMiT coordinator.

    "By facilitating access to funding and systems, AiiMiT will leverage support for technology-based innovation with real commercial potential." 

    “By facilitating access to funding and systems, AiiMiT will leverage support for technology-based innovation with real commercial potential,” continues Drefs. “We also want to facilitate industry involvement in the earliest stages of development.”

    “It can be valuable for students to work in an industrial environment,” says Ernst Bergmann, director of health technology development in the faculties of engineering and medicine & dentistry. “We are not benefitting as much as we could be from the input that industry can provide.”

    Jim Rikley, president of Associated Health Systems, agrees. “We [in industry] are actually out there in the trenches. We see what’s happening and we can translate that back to organizations like the University,” he says. He adds that university research done without consultation with industry “may not match with what the market actually needs.” And that’s where inventions get stalled or even shelved.

    “Inventing something and assuming it will somehow get developed is naive,” says Bergmann, noting that it typically takes 20 years for a new invention to reach the hands of patients. “We need to get our system more aligned with the reality of what it takes to put technology into the hands of patients and on the market.”

    Drefs notes that AiiMiT is already working with organizations in the innovation pathway to vet and screen projects, identifying those with the highest probability of success. These organizations include Biovantage, Clinexus, TRLabs, TEC Edmonton and Innovates Calgary. It’s also facilitating access to resources to assist with such things as regulatory approvals, contract negotiation, business planning and prototype development.

    Martin Ferguson-Pell

    Martin Ferguson-Pell: mining for “clinical prospectors.”

    For now, AiiMiT has secured some initial funding to iron out details and build consensus, thanks to Martin Ferguson-Pell, dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and one of the initiative’s main players (along with Drefs and Cy Frank,’70 BSc,’73 Dip(Ed), from the University of Calgary). By early 2012 it hopes to confirm funding for its next phase, which would recruit multidisciplinary teams of what Ferguson-Pell terms “clinical prospectors” to visit hospitals and come up with lists of unmet needs that could turn into possible products to develop.

    Clinical prospectors are tasked with spending at least five percent of their time actively engaged with identifying clinical problems that require an interdisciplinary approach and provide for the opportunity to connect universities and industry within the province. In other words, find real-world problems that need solutions and put the right people together to come up with viable and marketable solutions to those problems. “Call it clinical prospecting for unmet needs,” says Drefs.

    Convening and sponsorship of forums are also in AiiMiT’s bailiwick. To that end AiiMiT held its first forum in August 2010 and its second in April of 2011. The forums are meant to bring people together to address AiiMiT’s primary concern—finding technological solutions for real health burden challenges. The first forum presented on Narcotic Induced Respiratory Arrest: A problem looking for an innovative solution and Rehabilitation Challenges of the Bariatric Patient. The second forum focused on specifying clinical problems that require real-time spatial modeling and measurement of location.

    Drefs encourages alumni to attend these forums where they might be inspired to volunteer as mentors or they could bring forward potential clinical problems that might be met by a technological solution.

    For now, no one knows where the next big thing is going to come from and anyone’s idea is as good as anyone else’s—as long as it has a practical application. “It could be anything,” notes Burrell, “from ‘we need a new heart-lung machine’ to ‘if you change the position of this button it would make things easier for the nurses.’ ”