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Building a Health Innovation Pipeline in Southwestern Ontario: Facilities

The recent global health crisis highlighted the need to support and develop health-focused technology companies and build a stronger health innovation and manufacturing pipeline in Ontario. With the support of a $10-million investment from the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) announced last year, Velocity, through the University of Waterloo, the Medical Innovation Xchange (MIX), and Western University came together, to build the Southwestern Ontario Health Innovation Partnership and establish a health tech innovation hub in the region. The goal for the hub: to connect health tech companies with mentorship, business advisory services and support for product development with access to labs and clinical trial spaces. Over the last six months, several promising companies have already received dedicated support from one or more of the three partners – allowing them to grow and accelerate their path to market – and putting us closer to building a stronger, healthier Canada.

This article is part of a series around Building a Health Innovation Pipeline in Southwestern Ontario and focuses on the importance of providing access to dedicated facilities for health tech start-ups. Read Building Connections to learn more about why access to expertise and a community can drastically shorten time-to-market for health tech innovators.

Atefeh Zarabadi, Co-Founder and CEO of AiimSense in front of AiimSense's stroke treatment and prevention medical device
Atefeh Zarabadi, Co-Founder and CEO of AiimSense in front of AiimSense’s stroke diagnostic and monitoring device

Creating space for innovation

The Southwestern Ontario Health Innovation Partnership innovation hub provided promising health tech start-ups with office and product development space at Velocity and MIX. Beyond access to dedicated labs to develop their prototypes and products, the physical closeness of shared facilities also allowed incubated founders to benefit from expertise and mentorship from other health tech companies further on their path to commercialization.

“The Southwestern Ontario Health Innovation Partnership allowed us to leverage other sources of funding and create the first proof-of-concept for our product. Combined with in-kind support, this allowed AiimSense to reach new milestones and accelerate our path-to-market.”

Atefeh Zarabadi, Co-Founder and CEO of AiimSense

AiimSense develops portable brain scanners that help health providers more easily treat stroke patients, turning a time-consuming and expensive procedure currently reserved for a small subset of patients into routine, preventative care available for all. 

“Velocity supported us as we tested our sensors and antennas, accelerating our R&D and reducing our costs. In addition to access to hardware labs, Velocity also provided us with a community of founders. We even partnered with another non-health-tech start-up that was using similar tools and helped us with product development. This entire ecosystem is working together to keep the development costs down for early-technology companies. This is especially crucial for healthcare tech companies that need to go through lengthy product development and approval processes,” says Zarabadi.

“As a resident at MIX, NERv has benefited directly from access to lab and manufacturing space and advice to strategically enhance its regulatory, commercial, fundraising, manufacturing, sales and product development efforts.”

Amr Abdelgawad, NERv’s COO

NERv, which is building a smart monitoring system to help reduce the risks that are associated with surgeries by detecting anastomotic leaks early, also benefited from a closer network between Ontario’s leading support centres for health tech companies. 

“The Southwestern Ontario Health Innovation Partnership increased NERv’s connections to innovators and partners, and will allow for the development of a stronger ecosystem that connects early-stage medical device start-ups, innovators, researchers and industry experts. Access to leading researchers and talent at academic institutions has been and will continue to be a major driver that allows NERv to develop new and innovative solutions. These connections and collaborations will support NERv in developing a stronger IP portfolio.” 

By providing access to facilities that would otherwise be beyond the financial capabilities of most early-stage founders, Velocity, MIX and Western University are uniquely able to derisk health tech start-ups. This unique advantage of the Southwestern Ontario Health Innovation Partnership increases survival and supports capital-efficient growth for health tech companies, building a stronger and more innovative healthcare supply chain in Ontario. Access to labs and facilities further reduces vulnerable early-stage companies’ need to look for capital, allowing Canadian founders to retain control over strategic IP. Currently, more than half of all start-up funding in Canada comes from U.S. investors.

“Since 2015, Velocity has supported 50 health tech companies, generating 700 unique jobs and valuable intellectual property. Our health tech companies expanded operations across the globe, including the USA, Asia and MENA, raising Canada’s profile internationally and solving critical problems for patients and physicians worldwide by improving diagnostic imaging, cancer care and more. We want to make Waterloo’s Velocity Canada’s centre for early-stage health tech commercialization and innovation.”

Moazam Khan, Velocity’s HealthTech Lead

To support this goal, in 2023, Velocity will relocate to the Innovation Arena: a multi-use biosafety, clinical, instrumentation, product development and wet lab space for SMEs, entrepreneurs and innovators, and interdisciplinary space for world-class research and collaboration between University of Waterloo students and researchers, regional entrepreneurs and innovators, and clinicians and healthcare providers.

“Since our inception just two short years ago, MIX is now recognized as the premier destination hub for later-stage and scaling medtech companies. Through SOHIP, MIX will expand its support to even more companies as they graduate from Velocity and now Western University, helping to ensure that more domestically founded companies can grow and succeed in Canada, taking advantage of our talent pool, ecosystem and supporting significant economic growth.”

Elliot Fung, MIX’s Executive Director Elliot

To meet the demand of the growing number of medtech start-ups coming through the Velocity and Western University programs, MIX has expanded its footprint at its headquarters in Kitchener to a total of 40,000 square feet, with over a quarter of this space dedicated to manufacturing, labs and operations space. This expansion, appropriately called the MedTech Centre of Excellence, allows for companies to grow, test, design and manufacture – all on site.

“MIX is excited to have partnered with Velocity and Western University on creating SOHIP, as it affirms our vision to have Canada, and specifically our local ecosystem established as an internationally recognized hub for medtech and health innovation,” says Elliot Fung, Executive Director at Medical Innovation Xchange (MIX).

Finally, Western brings the strength of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, the clinical trail capacity at Robarts Research Institute and discoveries of the Lawson Health Research Institute as well as the business acumen of the Ivey Business School. The Western/Robarts/Lawson Health Innovation Satellites sites offer health entrepreneurs two fully functional innovation facilities that include makerspace, design rooms (think-tanks), startup offices, hot desks and hoteling space.

“Western is excited to leverage its existing health innovation ecosystem to create a connected community across southwestern Ontario in partnership with Velocity and MIX. Western University and its Robarts Research Institute along with their partners at the Lawson Health Research Institute were founded to bring scientists together with clinicians to develop solutions to the world’s health challenges.” 

Souzan Amstrong, Director of the Western’s Medical Innovation Fellowship