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Mohawk partnership group helps healthcare technology companies innovate - In the News

Alex Muggah of Synapse, and the Innovation Factory’s David Carter

(The article below by Andrea Johnson was published in the June/July issue of Canadian Healthcare Technology magazine.)

A recent federal investment in a Hamilton-based, life science cluster has increased access to expertise and funds for innovative healthcare technology companies – like VoxNeuro.

When VoxNeuro, the creator of a neurotechnology that helps doctors test cognitive functions and performance, was looking for investment from groups and individuals who are focused on life science, they reached out to the Synapse Life Science Consortium.

Synapse is a life science cluster that was launched by Hamilton’s regional innovation centre, the Innovation Factory, along with the City of Hamilton, McMaster Innovation Park, Bay Area Health Trust, Hamilton Health Sciences, St. Joseph’s Healthcare, McMaster University, and Mohawk College.

“Synapse was ready to make the introductions to help us build our network of investors,” said Kimberly Elliott, VoxNeuro’s chief operating officer. “Especially in healthcare, investors who are focused on driving positive social impact through technology are a great fit.”

Access to specialized expertise and support can make or break a life science company. That’s why a recent federal investment in Synapse – one that unlocks millions of dollars of funding for healthcare innovation for 40 Canadian companies – is welcome news for start-ups and scale-ups. In March, FedDev Ontario announced the launch of SOPHIE, the Southern Ontario Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Innovation Ecosystem. The $6 million investment in Innovation Factory will allow Synapse to significantly increase its programming and ensure faster access to clinical and technical support for eligible life science and health tech companies.

For David Carter, executive director of Innovation Factory, the establishment of SOPHIE is about supporting healthcare innovation with a focus on community. This can be done by increasing access to expertise and preventing companies from getting stuck behind red tape.

“Hamilton is home to world-class research institutions such as McMaster University, Hamilton Health Sciences, Mohawk College, and St. Joseph’s Healthcare. We have over 120 research institutes,” said Carter. “We have these great assets in our city that can now be used in a coordinated and consistent manner through SOPHIE.

“And it’s not just about clinical research. Yes, we have an extensive hospital network for clinical research, but there is also support for technology development, for additive manufacturing. It’s a powerful combination for companies to build, validate and test products that not only survive but also thrive in the system.”

SOPHIE offers a unique model for the future of healthcare innovation, with a multi-faceted approach to supporting companies.

The majority of the funding has been earmarked to help companies scale up with R&D support: $4.5 million will be available for companies that want to leverage their R&D budget to work with one of the research institutions affiliated with the consortium.

The remaining funds will be used to help support start-ups through the Synapse Life Science Competition and to run consortium programming and network events. The targeted distribution of the funds was by design, according to Alex Muggah, director of Synapse. Access to research expertise to build and refine prototypes and projects has been a key pain point for companies since the launch of Synapse in 2016.

“The challenge that we have is that our anchor research institutions – St. Joe’s, HHS, Mohawk, and McMaster – all lack dedicated funding instruments to be able to support innovative projects,” explained Muggah.

“And the companies who want to work with them oftentimes don’t have all the necessary funding to be able to support these projects themselves and move quickly to commercialize their idea,” he added. “With SOPHIE, a key benefit that we will be able to decrease the amount of time it takes for an innovative idea to emerge from the lab or someone’s garage and get to market. Already 10 companies have signed up to partner with SOPHIE.”

Doug Ward, general manager at Mohawk College’s mHealth & eHealth Development and Innovation Centre (MEDIC), sees the launch of SOPHIE as welcome news for digital health companies looking to commercialize quickly. MEDIC has been working with companies for over a decade and is one of the research labs that companies can work with through SOPHIE.

“While government R&D funding is a welcome source of support, the funds are often tied to specific due dates or deadlines – if you miss one deadline, you have to wait another few months or even a year,” said Ward. “Companies work fast and SOPHIE helps us to respond to their needs quickly and accelerate their development. This can result in a big step forward for a company’s product. We can make real change happen rapidly.”

Plus, Ward said, the program delivers significant value to the private sector: “The funding advantage from this program is massive. Who wouldn’t want to invest $1 and get $6 back?”

The launch of the SOPHIE comes as no surprise to those that have been watching the evolution of life-science companies in Hamilton. Muggah calls Hamilton a “goldilocks-sized city” for health innovation that has a “foundation of research, clinical care, health education and training that is pound for pound unrivaled in the rest of Canada.”

“You have the capabilities, the capacity, and the resources that you would find in Toronto or Boston, but we aren’t so big that it’s challenging for a company to access the equipment or expertise you need,” he said. “You aren’t waiting in a queue for two or three years to get a meeting.”

And while the expertise and network start in Hamilton, the scope is global.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook since this was announced,” Carter said. “And that’s because this isn’t about businesses that were created in Hamilton and sell in Hamilton. We’re building businesses for a world market.”

VoxNeuro’s Elliot agreed. The company just expanded into the U.S. market.

“We want to globally change the way brain health is managed and treated,” she said. “Ultimately, we are driven to become the gold standard of cognitive assessment, an integral part of every brain health assessment, worldwide.” That was the intention of SOPHIE funding, to support the concentrated expertise found in the Hamilton Region in companies like VoxNeuro and deliver it to people around the world.