It starts with a kernel of an idea on how to improve the health of Canadians. Behind it, scientists who are researching new ways to help patients through discovery and innovation. They have a concept, but they need critical funding to expand on it. That’s where Angels Den comes in.
Touted as Canada’s hottest health-care competition, Angels Den puts ideas in varying stages of development to the test in front of a panel of celebrity judges and esteemed jurors who will decide who receives $450,000 in prize money. Angels Den 2020 will have six teams of finalists made up of all-star doctors and scientists from St. Michael’s Hospital, part of the Unity Health Toronto hospital network. The teams will pitch their game-changing research in just four minutes in an attempt to demonstrate why their projects are worthy. It’s a showdown designed to address challenges in the system and inspire new solutions in keeping with the hospital’s global reputation as a research leader.
Angels Den began six years ago in a small classroom at St. Michael’s Hospital and continues to celebrate ingenuity. This year’s competition goes from live to virtual, due to COVID-19. The public will have an opportunity to watch the action online on September 30th at 7 p.m. as a panel of three celebrity judges – retail, fashion and business pioneer Joe Mimran, tech titan and entrepreneur Michele Romanow and producer and content creator Vinay Vermani – award teams divided into two essential research streams.
The first stream is concentrated on three ideas related to COVID-19 management and solutions, including pioneering solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic that optimize hospital flow, improve treatment and stem the spread of the virus. The second stream focuses on unconventional solutions for other life-changing health-care issues. The top prize for each stream of $150,000 are the Keenan COVID-19 Research Award and the Odette Innovative Health Award, and each finalist will be awarded $25,000. The general public can also vote for the $50,000 People’s Choice Award. To register and receive a program, visit AngelsDen.ca and play a part in medical history in the making.
Thanks to the funding, past winning teams have been able to move forward with testing, research and development. Here, three such teams explain the projects they pitched and how the prize money helped them.
NeoVest helps critically ill babies breathe better
More than a decade ago, physiologists Jennifer Beck and her research partner and husband, Christer Sinderby, staff scientists at St. Michael Hospital’s Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, came up with an idea on how to ventilate babies who are unable to breathe on their own.
While the usual masks, tubes and wires used were effective in pushing air into an infant’s lungs, they were uncomfortable, damaged the babies' noses and interfered with breastfeeding and bonding with parents. Beck and Sinderby came up with a solution – NeoVest, a tiny vest with a sensor that fits around a baby’s stomach and chest. The first device of its kind, it picks up the infant’s breathing signals and gives them a boost via gentle pressure to help babies breathe more naturally.
To explore the idea, St. Michael’s Hospital brought Beck together with pediatrician Dr. Douglas Campbell, director of the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. Michael’s Hospital. It was a fruitful collaboration. “This whole approach of pairing scientists and doctors allowed us to win some startup money…” says Dr. Campbell. Angels Den helped kickstart the process. Within two years, we had a product and were testing it on babies, which is unheard of in medical care," he adds. “It [usually] takes 20 or 30 years for this to happen. The competition is a really innovative way to accelerate the process, bringing great people together to help patients and in this case, critically ill babies.”
Beck and Dr. Campbell won critical funding through the Angels Den competition in 2015. Angels Den helped them win other competitions as well, giving them a nest egg for their research. It has allowed them to 3-D-print pre-clinical models of the NeoVest and show proof of concept, an early step in getting approval from Health Canada. Clinical research is ongoing.
Dr. Campbell likens the competition to “an elevator pitch” that forces you to present an idea in the most concise and simple way. All the team had was a drawing of a baby with what the vest might look like. It was enough for a greenlight from the judges. His advice to other would-be Angels Den competitors? “Go for it!”
Forecasting emergency department patient volumes with fAIth
How can artificial intelligence (AI) technology be applied, not only to research, but to patient care? In 2018, Dr. Muhammad Mamdani, vice-president of Data Science and Advanced Analytics at Unity Health Toronto, successfully pitched the Angels Den judges about fAIth, a tool that uses AI to improve efficiency around the hospital. For example, it can help predict patient volume in emergency rooms with more than 90 per cent accuracy and identify high-risk patients through the use of algorithms, which outperform clinician performance by 20 per cent. It can also alert medical teams to modify care by checking vital signs more frequently and bringing in more health-care providers, if needed.
In October, fAIth will be fully implemented at St. Michael’s Hospital. Funding from Angels Den helped move fAIth forward into widespread clinical use and it also helped make the AI solutions “more human-friendly,” according to Dr. Mamdani. The data provided to health-care teams was abundant, but overwhelming. “It was really hard for a person to get at the information they needed quickly to make decisions,” he says.
Dr. Mamdani was able to bring in designers who could simplify the data and make the tool much more user-friendly. “Now, our team routinely uses it several times every day to make planning decisions,” he notes.
For Dr. Mamdani, the Angels Den experience was memorable. “Walking up on the stage was exhilarating,” he recalls. “It was very professional and there were lots of people in the audience, from those who actually want to dig into the science to others who just wanted the bottom line, ‘How does this help me and my family?’ It was fantastic.”
He encourages other prospective competitors to participate as a way of scaling up ideas. “The whole principle around this is to fuel innovations that help people,” he explains. “I think if we can keep that in mind, it will drive us all to do better and to participate in events like this that push us even harder.”
Technology that determines the best treatment path for MS patients
An estimated 77,000 Canadians are living with multiple sclerosis – one of the highest rates in the world. A deep familiarity with MS has helped Canada become a research leader.
“We’ve been really fortunate in the last decade because we now have 15 different treatments available for MS patients,” says Dr. Jiwon Oh, a neurologist and interim medical director of the MS program at St. Michael’s Hospital. “There is a ton of choices, but we don’t necessarily know which medication would be the best for any particular patient. Though we use clinical prediction factors, it’s never a perfect science.”
She and her colleague, Dr. Tony Antoniou, research scholar in Family and Community Medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital, were determined to change that.
They developed Tailor Made, an AI tool that uses algorithms to develop personalized treatment approaches to treat MS patients. The technology leverages a huge MS database to identify patterns that may not be apparent to clinicians. In 2019, Dr. Oh and Dr. Antoniou presented their research to Angels Den judges and succeeded in securing funds as winners of the Odette Social Innovation Award. It was no easy feat.
“It was a pretty big challenge,” recalls Dr. Oh. As a clinician and a scientist, she was used to presenting to neurologists who specialize in MS, not to laypeople and physicians with different specialties who sat in the Angels Den audience. It forced the doctors to drill down to the core of their idea. “Tony and I ended up cutting 95 per cent of the text from our initial slides,” she adds. “We realized our story could be told with very simple phrases and pictures.”
When the names of the winners were read, they were shocked. “It was humbling to see how many other amazing projects are out there,” says Dr. Oh. “It makes you understand how much the public cares about what is being done to help patients.”
Tailor Made is in first-phase testing in the BARLO MS Centre of St. Michael’s Hospital and feedback is expected at the end of September. Sometime in the near future, the technology could be used at MS clinics in Canada and globally.
“Many of these bright and unique ideas often never see the light of day,” says Dr. Oh. “That’s why a competition like this is so important. It gives an avenue for smaller but really interesting and potentially innovative and game-changing projects to be funded.”
AND THE WINNERS OF ANGELS DEN 2020, PRESENTED BY RBC, ARE…
On September 30, six teams of St. Michael’s Hospital’s all-star scientists battled it out on Angels Den Virtual for a chance to win prizes totaling nearly $500,000. They pitched their breakthrough projects to three celebrity judges, a panel of over 50 jurors and an online audience of thousands. Their aim? To change the game for COVID-19 and other tough health challenges. Here’s who came out on top. Missed the show? Watch it now at angelsden.ca.
LUNG LIFE AFTER COVID-19: Dr. Darren Yuen and Dr. Kieran McIntyre
While most people survive COVID-19, even a mild case can leave people with permanent lung scarring — and long-term breathing problems. Thanks to Dr. Darren Yuen, a nephrologist, and Dr. Kieran McIntyre, a respirologist, there’s now a way to rapidly screen for lung scarring using a new bedside ultrasound tool, as well as a promising new drug to treat COVID-19-induced lung damage.
That breakthrough won them the Keenan COVID-19 Research Award. “This funding will enable us to quickly screen for long-term lung damage right in the clinic, and develop a new treatment for this life-threatening injury,” they say.
SkIP (Skin Imaging for Pressure Injuries) TECH: Dr. Karen Cross
Imagine. Canada has the highest volume of patients with pressure injuries, or bed sores, in the developed world. They affect 10 million Canadians – mostly those in chronic care.
Here’s the good news. This painful, life-threatening condition is preventable.
Dr. Karen Cross, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, is on it. She developed an AI device that lets all health-care practitioners monitor patients at risk of a pressure injury and intervene before it gets serious. It’s called SkIP (Skin Imaging for Pressure Injuries) Tech, and it took home the Odette Innovative Health Award.
“The win recognizes that the lives of this very vulnerable population matter,” says Dr. Cross. “It puts bed sores front and centre so we can stop the suffering.”
SMART GARMENTS: AI THERAPY FOR YOUR MUSCLES: Dr. Jane Batt
And this year’s fan favourite, the People’s Choice Award, presented by Canada Life, goes to Dr. Jane Batt, for her high-tech textiles that keeps muscles working.
When people are ill for long periods of time, their muscles can waste away – for good. Though it can be prevented by neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES), it takes too many resources to administer. Sadly, people may never walk again or live independent lives.
So respirologist Dr. Jane Batt invented Smart Garments. The leg stockings and arm sleeves automate NMES and exercise the muscles through the power of AI. The hope? Patients regain their mobility and reclaim their lives.
“It’s not just the money,” says Dr. Batt. “The award is a vote of confidence that keeps us going, when the going gets tough.”
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.