The Ontario Brain Institute (OBI) was created to address the conclusions of several reports focused on ways to maximize strategic research and economic development opportunities in the province of Ontario. The vision which inspired the OBI was that research excellence already exists in Ontario but must be leveraged to improve the impact of neuroscience research across the province. Strategic partnering is vital to the success of the OBI, with the objective to leverage existing expertise and investment, the OBI’s goal is to grease, not reinvent the wheel.
Partnership ensures that the focus of OBI programs and platforms are informed by stakeholders. Early participation and contribution of different stakeholders (basic, clinical, and translational researchers, patients and advocacy groups, government and industry) in the development of various OBI programs leads to better design and execution of activities in addition to enhancing the adoption of program outcomes.
Principles of partnership:
1) Common focused goals
The first step in creating partnerships is to recognize common goals. For the Ontario Brain Institute, and partners across the province, that goal is improving health for patients afflicted with brain disorders. This goal is common to all the different stakeholders including clinicians, academics, patient advocacy groups, companies and governments alike.
2) Province-wide vision & impact
The OBI’s mandate is to engage the province, east to west and north to south. Every program or initiative it supports or develops must have benefits, or impact, for the whole province. The OBI engages regional “champions” to work within their institutions, companies and communities. Regional champions advocate for OBI programs and initiatives within their communities, and also on behalf of their regional strengths and capacity in relation to OBI programs.
3) Leverage existing investment, expertise, research & development capacity
The OBI was not created to build a neuroscience initiative from the ground up. It was created to leverage the extensive investments made in academic institutions, treatment centres, and training programs by past provincial and federal governments with the aim of spurring scientific discovery.
4) Improve efficiency, communication & integration
OBI partnerships are designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of research, communications between fields and industries, and the integration of this knowledge into decision making.
When the OBI was created, two councils were formed to provide advice and support: the Industry Advisory Council (IAC) and Science Advisory Council (SAC).
The IAC includes experts from the pharmaceutical industry, medical devices, high performance computing and commercialization enterprise. This group, committing both financial and human resources, provides advice and strategic direction to the OBI board and senior management, and act as champions within their own organizations to promote and support OBI programs.
The SAC is composed of international research experts, gathered to advise and support the OBI board and senior management on issues of scientific excellence. This council, along with its industry counterpart, played a major role in the selection of the Integrated Discovery Programs and continues to support these initiatives through participation on Core Innovation and Science Innovation teams within each of the three established and two newly integrated discovery programs.
Examples of Partnerships: OBI Programs
Integrated Discovery Programs (IDP)
The Integrated Discovery programs were designed to improve patient outcomes by fostering research collaborations between basic scientists, clinical scientists, industry partners and patient advocates; by standardizing patient assessments across Ontario; and by engaging patients in every stage of research and development. The first three ID programs involve epilepsy, cerebral palsy and neurodevelopment which includes autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and intellectual disability. Each program is made up of 20 to 25 researchers and clinicians, four to nine clinical sites, eight to 17 industrial partners, and six to seven patient advisory groups.
The Neurodevelopment Integrated Discovery Program, named the Province of Ontario Neurodevelopmental Disorders Network (POND), leverages existing investment in the basic and clinical research labs across institutions in order to advance our understanding of individual variability observed within these disorders. For example, by leveraging a Genome Canada grant to Dr. Stephen Scherer (an internationally-recognized geneticist for autism spectrum disorders), the group is able to link genetic information from their patients to specific behaviours or changes in brain structure and function. By leveraging the existing capacity and excellence in mouse-imaging (SickKids, funded by CFI, OIT and ORF), the group can compare findings in human studies and animal models. This partnership between clinicians and basic researchers will also speed up the development of new treatments by creating a screening tool for testing new potential treatments and predicting which patients may benefit most.
Brain-CODE is a secure, virtual resource to advance understanding of brain disorders. This informatics platform will allow researchers to collect, share and analyze “big data” across multiple technologies, data sources and disorders. The program leverages millions of dollars, primarily through a partnership with the InDOC Consortium. The InDoc consortium is a cross- provincial team made up of the following expert groups: High Performance Computing Virtual Laboratory (high performance computing and large scale data storage), Ontario Cancer Biomarker Network (molecular biomarker management), Applied Health Research Centre (clinical data management), Rotman Research Institute (neuroinformatics), and Electronic Health Information Laboratory (security and de-identification). OBI provides the strategic direction and governance, as well as the incoming data resulting from the Integrated Discovery Programs. Brain-CODE not only integrates and makes accessible data across programs and disease, but is a valuable tool to attract industry engagement through clinical trials by characterizing patient populations.
The commercialization program at the OBI invites industry engagement across OBI programs to support and foster the growth and ongoing development of a neuroscience cluster in Ontario. One of the main commercialization initiatives spearheaded by the OBI, aptly named NeuroTech Ontario, engages 13 individual non-profit and private company partnerships, under one large application to the FedDev Ontario Technology Development Program (TDP). The OBI plays the role of ‘honest broker’ between the funding agency and the projects, providing administrative support and strategic decision making. FedDev Ontario provides approximately $11 million in funding, which is then matched by for profit partners through cash or in-kind contributions. These projects span the province from Windsor to Kingston covering products related to brain sensing, brain training and brain device interface.
The Experiential Education Initiative (EEI)
The Experiential Education Initiative bridges commercialization and training, and is composed of three distinct offerings: OBI Entrepreneurs, Graduate Opportunity Internships and Graduate Opportunity Fellowships. The first to launch, OBI Entrepreneurs, provides $50,000 in cash, expert mentorship, networking opportunities, links to follow on funding, incubation space and publicity to young graduate researchers exploring the commercial potential of their innovations in neuroscience.
The awards were funded in part through a strategic partnership with the Ontario Centres of Excellence, an organization dedicated to co-investment in commercialization, technology transfer and talent development projects that will drive Ontario’s future prosperity and global competitiveness. The success of the OBI-OCE funding partnership has led to expansion of the co-funding arrangement from three selected entrepreneurs candidates in year one, to up to 10 in year two.
The training component of the program was made possible through a partnership with the TECHNO program administered through the Institute for Optical Sciences, at the University of Toronto, led by Professor Cynthia Goh and her team. This program is an intensive, hands-on, month long program dedicated to the development and support of entrepreneurial ventures.
Mentorship in this program was provided by a myriad of OBI partners, from members of our Ontario Brain Innovation Council, to seasoned entrepreneurs and business people from companies across Ontario. Incubation space was provided to OBI Entrepreneurs by local innovation centres and accelerators including INVEST Ottawa, Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute, the McMaster Innovation Park and TECHNOLabs. Follow on funding opportunities were made possible through relationships with other provincial and federal sources of funding, with information sessions and personal feedback from the business development officers at OCE, IRAP, HTX and VentureStart. The OBI works closely with these programs to bridge the gap between funding opportunities and support company and product development.
Knowledge Translation is taking what we know and making it what we do, with the objective of improving care and quality of life through new products and processes born out of the excellent research and development occurring in Ontario. A focus of the OBI is to partner with existing patient advocacy groups to help share valuable information stemming from the research activities for the benefit of patients and the general public. As an example, the OBI recently partnered with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and advocacy group Autism Speaks Canada to host a workshop and public lecture about current basic and translational science in the field of autism research. This event leveraged funds, expertise, patient access, sharing current knowledge about the state of autism research, and bringing the community together to engage in cross-pollination and the exchange of ideas.
Converge, Discover, Deliver
Each OBI program and partnership has been integrated within and across initiatives to maximize the impact of funds invested and to engage experts from disparate backgrounds. OBI entrepreneurs find mentorship among the industry partners in the NeuroTech Ontario program. Integrated Discovery programs have incorporated the products and innovations from Entrepreneur and NeuroTech Ontario companies in their research programs. Brain-CODE is set to be a receptacle and databank accessible to all participating programs, and will engage a whole new sphere of partners in the computing and analytics space. Finally, uniting the information and discovery in each of these programs is the knowledge translation initiative, which shares information across audiences and engages the public to support and benefit from the outcomes of these programs.
Partnerships are the basis of OBI’s early successes, and the leveraging that results from these relationships was a driving influence in the Ontario government’s recent decision to renew and enhance funding to the OBI. As OBI and its partners work towards the common goal of improving patient health by leveraging existing resources and capacity across the province to build and support a cluster of neuroscience excellence, everyone in Ontario will have a lot to celebrate in the coming years.