What do a physicist, neuroscientist and engineer have in common? If you ask the Ontario Brain Institute: good ideas.
The trouble with good ideas is that they don’t keep. As famed English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “something must be done about them.” This ‘something’, in the case of neuroscience in Ontario, was detailed in two seminal reports. The first, written by the Ontario Innovation Trust in 2009, proposed the formation of a new neuroscience research institute in Ontario, one that would model new methods of collaborative research, bringing together research strengths across the province. The second, commissioned in 2011, confirmed that Ontario does have the potential for an economic cluster in neurosciences. That potential comes from our well-developed infrastructure as well as patient and customer demand, but is challenged by lack of access to capital and management talent.
These reports detailed a call to action, to create a collaborative institution to catalyze research activity, and develop programs to improve access to capital and increase managerial talent. In response to this call the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI), partially funded by the Government of Ontario, was formed.
The Ontario Brain Institute
The OBI was established with the goal of maximizing the impact of neuroscience through integrating and funding pan-Ontario research programs, commercialization, health informatics, and knowledge translation to improve the lives of people with neurological disorders, create companies and jobs, and improve care for brain disorders in Ontario.
These new models of collaborative research, called Integrated Discovery programs yield standardization of tools and the collection of research data. This provides a rich source of information gathered into an informatics bank called Brain-CODE, as well as enhanced knowledge translation throughout the research programs.
New Models of Collaborative Research
The OBI’s Integrated Discovery programs offer an innovative approach to large scale brain research initiatives. These are rooted in the drive to improve patient outcomes by fostering research collaborations between basic scientists and clinical scientists; by standardizing patient assessments across Ontario; and by engaging patients in every stage of research and development.
Core innovation teams, composed of major players in research and industry, maximize the translation of research ideas into viable products by monitoring research progress, providing strategic direction and offering commercialization expertise to the research teams.
The first three ID programs involve epilepsy, cerebral palsy and neurodevelopment which include autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and intellectual disability.
The neurodegeneration (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, fronto-temporal lobar degeneration, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and vascular cognitive impairment), depression, addiction and concussion programs are currently receiving pilot funding to further develop strategies and run small proof-of-concept studies. A total of $7.7 million is flowing to these programs over 18 months. Currently at the half-way point, our programs have already achieved notable outcomes, including two new companies spin-outs, one peer-reviewed publication, one manuscript submission and two intellectual property disclosures.
The OBI’s Integrated Discovery programs are employing highly trained scientists, and generating basic, translational, and clinical research data. This data not only provides publications, public education and intellectual property for products and devices, but feeds into the OBI’s informatics program called Brain-CODE, which will maximize the value and impact of this work.
Maximizing the Impact of Neuroscience
Brain-CODE is a secure, virtual resource to advance understanding of CNS diseases. This informatics platform will allow researchers to collect, share and analyze “big data” across multiple technologies, data sources and diseases. Brain-CODE will augment the value of patient’s research data by integrating it with accrued health information from other research programs and databases. For Ontario’s economy, Brain-CODE means speeding the development of novel treatments and diagnostics, making the Brain-CODE model financially sustainable by creating many different revenue streams and the potential for greater government investment in CNS research and development. Brain-CODE also leverages the province’s extensive prior investments in infrastructure, capacity and expertise, making “big data” available to researchers and projects of all sizes and capacities.
Knowledge translation plays a key role in ID Programs and Brain-Code, informing and educating professionals and lay persons alike of the work going on in the province, and its implications for Ontarians, regardless of age, gender or health status. Specific knowledge translation activities include ‘Talk & Listen’ tours, designed to open dialogues with community and interest groups across the province, sharing information about capacity, strengths and areas for improvement; to webinars, with expert panelists providing accessible information about topics from clinical trials to diseases and disorders.
Bridging the Capital and Talent Gap
To improve access to capital for the commercialization of research and development of early stage products in neuroscience, the OBI has brought together and currently coordinates a group of 14 neurotechnology projects, supported by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), through its Technology Development Program (TDP). Each project involves collaboration between a not-for-profit organization and an industry partner, and is funded by industry and the federal government, with a total investment exceeding $24 million and involving 28 partners. Projects range from neurotechnology devices to software packages for cognitive training.
The Experiential Education Initiative (EEI) was established to address the lack of managerial talent in neurotechnology in the province. This initiative includes three distinct offerings: entrepreneurship awards, internship placements and management fellowships.
The inaugural Ontario Brain Institute (OBI) Entrepreneurs Program provides a glimpse of what the province has to offer. The program enables young researchers to transport research out of their lab and into commercially viable products and innovations. Candidates are required to pitch their idea to a panel of experts, providing both the science and business case to support their proposal. Trained in academic institutions across the province from Ottawa to Thunder Bay, across a variety of disciplines, these young scientists are intelligent, driven and destined to make an impact on the neurotechnology cluster – a geographic concentration of components or value chain of an industry, from research and development to production and sales.
This year is the inaugural offering of the award, a $50,000 cash prize in addition to expert mentorship, training and networking opportunities. Within two weeks of posting the opportunity, the OBI received over 30 strong applicants. Fifteen of them were selected to pitch to the expert panel, and seven were ultimately selected for funding. Several candidates are co-funded through a partnership with the Ontario Centres of Excellence, just one of many relationships enabling the OBI to leverage funds and maximize impact.
Projects range from advances and improvements in medical imaging and therapies, to applications designed to re-train the senses. Each entrepreneur is matched with a mentor, placed in a regional incubator and connected to local and provincial networks of experts, including academics, healthcare and industry experts. The entrepreneurs benefit from the support and promotional efforts of the OBI and our partners, and the province benefits from the innovative products and experience driven training of highly skilled researchers across the province.
Each entrepreneur not only represents a new or improved product, and a new company, but an investment in the human capital of the province of Ontario. These individuals are tackling some of the major challenges in neuroscience and CNS disease, including medical imaging technology, and rehabilitation of both mind and body.
One area of interest is medical imaging, which has opened up a world of possibilities in diagnosis of disease and evaluation of treatment. However, it’s been said that possibility always comes at a price, requiring large capital expenditures that complicate the availability of these products and services.
Oleksandr Bubon, a research physicist from Lakehead University, is developing a new block detector system that will dramatically reduce the physical size requirements of positron emission tomography detectors. Making PET detectors portable would change the face of medicine in northern Canada, not to mention emerging markets like China and India.
Xingxing Xing, also a physicist, from University of Toronto, has created a new company SONOLA. Xingxing is tackling distortion in ultrasound imaging caused by the skull, hoping to improve resolution to enable effective and inexpensive brain imaging. Once again, this is a novel use of an existing tool, with implications for healthcare within and beyond our borders.
Dan Hosseinzadeh, an electrical engineer from Sunnybrook and now co-founder of Pathcore, has created a new system for image analysis for labs and clinics. Pathcore is a software platform and digital pathology tool that makes it easier to analyze complex, large size whole slide images. Rehabilitation of the body and mind is a topic of great interest, with advances in technology spurring innovation in treatment.
Michael Chrostowski, a neuroscientist and engineer from McMaster University, is exploring the use of computational modeling of brain activity to improve sound therapy for persons with hearing damage. Michael has started a company, SoundOptions, and is preparing for trials that will test the effectiveness of the sound therapy customized to individuals suffering from hearing loss.
Brian Hu, an engineer from the University of Toronto, has created the company SenseIntelligent. His goal is to perfect an application he designed to help deaf persons experience sound through vision. The technology opens opportunities for a number of applications, and is being designed for use on Android smartphone and tablet platforms.
Aliasgar Morbi, a mechanical engineer from Carleton University, through his company GaitTronics, has developed a robot to assist in walking practice, for use in rehabilitation and research. This product has the potential to not only provide a safer environment for rehabilitation, but boost the number of patients treated by reducing staff time requirements for these programs.
Mehran Talebinejad, a biomedical engineer, and his team at NeuroQuore are working on reducing the cost and increasing the longevity of transcranial magnetic stimulation devices. The intended use for these more durable and less expensive units is for the treatment of depression.
Each of these entrepreneurs and their projects has the opportunity to engage and support other programs at the OBI, whether through the Integrated Discovery programs, FedDev Ontario sponsored projects, or by eventually contributing trial data to Brain-CODE. All these initiatives are designed to support and be supported by the neurotechnology cluster, translating knowledge, through education, engagement and commercialization of products to impact patient outcomes and improve the caliber of care.
Supporting the Neurotechnology Cluster
All the activity created through this growing network of research, information sharing, education, training and commercialization is sustained by the newly formed Ontario Brain Innovation Council (OBIC). The OBIC is a group of experts across academics, healthcare, industry, patient groups and not for profits, created to advise on the strategic direction of programs for innovation in neuroscience in Ontario, to provide networks of expertise for participants in OBI programs and working in the neurotechnology space. This OBIC is a call to action, to engage the greater community to contribute, support and benefit from the research and economic activity of the cluster.
There is a wealth of good ideas in Ontario, the OBI is catalyzing the development and commercialization of these neurotechnology innovations and products with the ultimate goal of improving patient care and outcomes in neurological disorders.
Alison Fenney is a program lead, Entrepreneurship & Management Training Ontario Brain Institute.