True North trailblazers
The Governor-General's Innovation Awards are a celebration of Canadian creators who have reshaped lives nationally and abroad. In the ceremony's second year, awards were handed out for a breakthrough in mental-health-service accessibility, a new approach to treating hearing deficits in the poorest parts of the globe, the development of plastics that are less likely to cause blood clots, technology that identifies disease-resistant cattle in the dairy industry, the removal of allergens from a key medical material and the digital preservation of Indigenous languages
Name: David Brown
Innovation: Using fungus to make chitosan, a medically useful material
When David Brown was still an undergraduate at the University of Alberta, he took a course in industrial microbiology that changed his perspective on what he could do with his science degree.
"It was the first course that looked at the industrial applications of bioscience … that was something I'd never really considered before," said Mr. Brown, 27, who is the youngest winner to date of the Governor-General's Innovation Award.
It was a lesson he took to heart. Since he graduated five years ago, Mr. Brown has founded two biotech companies based on an idea he developed for manufacturing chitosan, a versatile plastic-like substance that is in demand for a range of medical and other applications.
Derived from chitin – the durable material that makes up the protective outer covering of shrimp and other crustaceans – chitosan has several useful properties, including as a clotting agent. But because the traditional source of chitosan is shellfish, it comes with a risk of triggering allergies.
"I realized there was a real problem there," said Mr. Brown, who worked on a fermentation process that yields pure chitosan from fungus rather than shellfish. "Our work was to discover which species of fungus produces the most of it so that we could build a feasible business around that fungus."
The process has the additional advantage of requiring relatively little energy and few chemical ingredients, making it more environmentally friendly than other methods.
But it was not an easy start. When he graduated, Mr. Brown returned to his native New Brunswick and was hampered without startup funding or a facility to work in. With early support from the organization Futurpreneur, Mr. Brown rented lab space in Grand Falls, a small community in the northern part of the province, where he could test his concept.
"I wanted to stretch every penny, so I spent the summer living in a campground," he said.
Once he had his system working, Mr. Brown founded Mycodev, which supplies chitosan for medical products. He is also co-founder and COO of Chinova Bioworks Inc., which is exploiting chitosan's antimicrobial properties for use as a natural preservative.
Mr. Brown said one of the biggest challenges he and other biotech entrepreneurs face in Canada is finding investors who are willing to look beyond a two-year horizon for generating returns.
"It does take time," he said.
Name: Marie-Odile Junker
Innovation: Digital resources designed to preserve endangered Indigenous languages
In the late 1980s, a few years after a young Marie-Odile Junker first arrived in Canada from France, she saw a large statue of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, considered the founder of Quebec, outside a major art gallery. In front of him was a much tinier statue of his Indigenous scout. As an outsider, this helped Ms. Junker understand how invisible First Nations communities were to much of the rest of Canada.
While languages from all around the world could be studied in universities across the country, Indigenous languages such as Cree or Dene weren't offered. Ms. Junker, a linguist, realized that without outside intervention, many of these languages, like other elements of Indigenous cultures, faced the threat of extinction.
In the past 17 years, Ms. Junker, who now teaches at Carleton University, has done her part to change that. With a background in computer science, she's built resources to preserve languages in the Algonquian family (Cree, Innu and Atikamekw), including a linguistic atlas. And by using the style of "participatory action" used in the fields of international development and psychology, she's elevated the individuals she works with from mere data sources into project partners who directly benefit from the tools she develops.
She has heard from people in communities all over Quebec and Ontario about the practical uses they've had for the tools she's developed: everyone from educators in First Nations communities who are teaching Algonquian languages to their students to Indigenous inmates at prisons relearning a language lost in adolescence. From January to June, 2016, users of the online Innu dictionary she developed looked up more than 75,000 words.
"It's not the same as immigrant languages," Ms. Junker explains. "These are the languages from this land. These are the languages that were here before. People have nowhere to go to relearn that."
Recently, she heard from a woman in a small Cree community in Chisasibi, Que., along the eastern shore of James Bay. Her 16-year-old son had made a trip to Ottawa to attend an intensive hockey camp and was deeply homesick, having been plucked from the only home he knew and the language he was most comfortable with.
Later, he discovered the only thing that soothed him before bed was listening to the Cree instruction on a conversation app Ms. Junker's team had developed to help teach the language.
Name: Bonnie Mallard
Location: Guelph, Ont.
Innovation: High Immune Response technology
Canada's dairy industry is big business: Across the country, more than 11,000 farms generate more than $6-billion in sales every year. With stakes that high, no small detail is left up to chance.
From breeding for specific cattle traits to the use of automatic milking robots – every step is carefully managed to ensure maximum production.
But until recently, one important piece of the puzzle remained largely unpredictable: disease-resistance.
Enter Bonnie Mallard. This week, Dr. Mallard, a Professor of Immunogenetics at the University of Guelph, was a recipient of the Governor-General's Innovation Award for her invention of High Immune Response (HIR) technology, which helps to manage animal health on dairy farms.
HIR technology allows farmers and breeders to identify animals with the best immune systems, who are naturally the most disease-resistant. Cows identified as "high immune responders" experience roughly 50-per-cent fewer disease occurrences than their herd mates, according to Dr. Mallard. That means fewer instances of illness like mastitis and pneumonia, which cost farmers billions of dollars annually in veterinary costs and lost milk production.
"That's what this is about – identifying those individuals, and then breeding those together to pass those genes on to the offspring," she said. "Through that, you can make generations of healthier offspring."
Dr. Mallard's HIR technology, licensed to Canadian livestock genetic company Semex, is being used in some form at most dairy farms across Canada. Farmers can purchase bull semen that comes from "high immune responders" directly from Semex, for use in inseminating the cattle on their own farms.
Healthier cows also means reducing the use of antibiotics and other treatments – something that has become increasingly important to consumers.
"It's not about treating sick animals. This is about making sure animals don't get sick in the first place," she said.
So far, Dr. Mallard's technology has been focused mainly on the dairy industry. But she plans to expand to other animals, including beef cattle, horses and pigs.
– Ann Hui
Name: Paul Santerre
Innovation: Making plastic medical devices the body won't reject
Trained as a chemical engineer, Paul Santerre found his true calling in the mid-1980s when he went to McMaster University to work on a PhD and became fascinated with how plastics interact with blood.
At the time, the potential for working with synthetic materials that could function with and within the body had become an exciting new frontier, a development made dramatically clear when a Seattle dentist named Barney Clark became the first recipient of an artificial heart.
"I thought that was quite riveting," said Dr. Santerre. "I just jumped at it and haven't looked back since then."
In 1990, Dr. Santerre went on to become a materials expert with Canada's first artificial-heart program at the Ottawa Heart Institute, a collaboration that brought together industry with university and clinical researchers – a rare combination at the time.
The work included quarterly design and development milestones that served to accelerate new technology and its translation into the clinic. It was a sensibility that Dr. Santerre took with him a few years later to the University of Toronto, where he embarked on a research program to develop plastic surfaces that don't cause blood to clot.
It's a daunting challenge. Millions of years of evolution have equipped humans with an immune system that is quick to recognize and reject any foreign substance. A typical plastic item found around the house may seem inert when handled, but the same material in the bloodstream quickly attracts proteins that bind to its surface and begin to form clots.
Dr. Santerre's key innovation was to add ingredients during the manufacturing of plastic to make it less likely to generate an immune response.
"If you design the material to fool the body into thinking it belongs, then the proteins and cells just keep doing what they were naturally designed to do," he said.
The practical result has led to more than 60 patents and devices, such as catheters that can be inserted into a blood vessel – for example to deliver a cancer therapy – and kept in place for a year or more without causing harm.
In 2001, Dr. Santerre founded Interface Biologics Inc., which manufactures the devices, and now directs U of T's efforts to help spinoff companies in the health-care sector, where he continues to teach what he learned about building companies.
– Ivan Semeniuk
Name: Audra Renyi
Innovation: Helping the poor to hear
As a child, Audra Renyi always thought the ailment that afflicted her father, Pierre, was something of a fluke.
He and his sister, Ms. Renyi's Aunt Katy, both wore hearing aids to correct the profound hearing loss they suffered as children in their native Romania, where they could not get the antibiotics they needed to treat their ear infections. "I always thought it was just something in my family that had happened to us, that it was an isolated case," Ms. Renyi said.
When she learned as an adult that more than a billion people around the world have some degree of hearing loss, Ms. Renyi decided to draw on her experience as a Wall Street investment banker and international aid worker to co-found World Wide Hearing, a Montreal-based non-profit organization dedicated to correcting hearing deficits in some of the poorest parts of the globe.
Ms. Renyi, now 35, and a recipient of the Governor-General's Innovation Award, wasn't keen on the old charitable model of handing out used hearing aids and moving on. Her innovation was to persuade companies to drastically cut the price of new digital hearing aids, while at the same time training local women to test for hearing loss and to fit the devices in patients' ears on the spot. Sympathetic hearing-aid makers gained access to rural markets in the developing world; deaf and partly deaf children, some of whom had been kept hidden by their families, gained access to devices that changed their lives.
World Wide Hearing launched its first project in the Jordanian town of Salt in 2012. The non-profit, which has so far screened about 20,000 people and distributed 2,000 hearing aids, has since expanded to run programs in Guatemala, Peru, Vietnam and the Philippines. Now it's moving into Canada's North, where more than one-third of school-age Inuit children have some form of hearing loss.
Although Ms. Renyi is a fan of high-tech solutions for hearing loss – her organization won funding from Google to try out inexpensive options for hearing-loss screening with smartphones and to develop a cloud computing solution to aggregate that data – she is also open to fixes that are decidedly low-tech, such as offering children special stickers to decorate their hearing aids.
"Sometimes that 25-cent sticker makes the difference between a child wanting to wear their hearing aid or not," Ms. Renyi said.
– Kelly Grant
Names: Patricia Lingley-Pottie and Patrick McGrath of the Strongest Families Institute
Innovation: Distance-based mental-health services that reduce wait times and improve access
The barriers to access for mental-health care can pile up fast. Time, geography, cost, and stigma all still hold many people back from seeking treatment. Nova Scotia's Strongest Families Institute builds evidence-based distance-education programs to clear the path through all of that for children and families.
The not-for-profit runs bilingual programs for children and teens between the ages of 3 and 17 to help them overcome struggles such as anxiety and behavioural difficulties, using a mix of video, manuals and regular telephone-support coaching sessions. From the Halifax area, the institute's team of 50 provides support to about 4,000 families a year in a growing number of jurisdictions, including most Atlantic provinces and Alberta.
In broadening access to mental-health services, they can drastically reduce wait times: In Nova Scotia alone, the Institute boasts that it helped get a 400-person wait list into its programs in 3 1/2 months. "We wanted to build something designed to meet the needs of families, but also the system itself," says Dr. Patricia Lingley-Pottie, its president and chief executive.
That's on top of giving families a comfortable and private way to seek help without having to skip work, school or other routines, and opening up treatment opportunities in remote corners of Canada.
The Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation nominated the Institute for the Governor-General's Innovation Awards.
The Institute found a niche, its founders say, by simply using old methods in new ways. "We're not radically original, but we're quite innovative," its chair, Patrick McGrath, says.
The team refers to its therapists as coaches in order to get clients in the mindset that they're building strengths to get healthier. "There's no shame in learning new skills," Dr. McGrath says. "You might do it for your golf game, or get a fitness coach."
As a not-for-profit, the Strongest Families Institute depends on funding from provinces and the likes of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Bell Let's Talk in order to expand its programs and service regions. It will launch in New Brunswick soon, and hopes to expand coverage to Ontario and Quebec, and is connecting with global partners. And it plans to broaden its services, including post-traumatic-stress-disorder programs to help military veterans and Syrian refugees.
– Josh O'Kane