Feature: Innovation hub home to medical technology start-up

hand typing on laptop with image graphics of bar graphs, world floating aboveBy Alexandra Burza, MMJC'19

At the Robarts Innovation Hub, medical technology start-up companies like Pharmasees are supported in their transition from research and development to commercialization.

Pharmasees co-founder and Robarts scientist Dr. Michael Rieder, says he was inspired to improve clinical trial research and patient care with non-invasive, zero-effort medical technologies from his own research experiences in acute care settings.

“I became interested in refining methods for data capture, because it became apparent that some of the techniques used for monitoring patients are very cumbersome,” Rieder explained. “For example, when we monitor pulse oximetry, a test used to measure the oxygen levels in blood, the wires get in the way and it's inconvenient for the clinician and patient.”

Out of a partnership with the University of Waterloo’s Intelligent Antenna Group, a world leader in wireless monitoring, as well as the Robarts Research Institute, Pharmasees was founded.

Rieder’s vision for Pharmasees includes innovation in both hardware and software to create wireless monitoring technology, as well as algorithms that can predict the course of prognosis and disease based on patients’ vital sign data.

One of the technologies currently in development at Pharmasees is a wearable monitoring device that can continuously track heart rate, temperature and blood pressure remotely. The challenge for the researchers is to develop software that will provide health care-grade accuracy in data feedback.

Rieder says the device, which they are also working to adapt for animal research, will help reduce the cost of research and increase capacity, as well as outreach for clinical trials as the monitoring could be performed remotely.

“We can potentially have trials in which we can follow patients who are at home, without frequent visits to the clinic to be reassessed,” he said. “Our technologies hope to facilitate smarter, easier clinical trials that are less expensive.”

Pharmasees is also developing a non-invasive blood cell monitoring system, which would use light technology to analyze capillaries in a patient’s finger instead of the traditional procurement of blood samples in order to measure blood cell count.

“Our hope is that clinicians can monitor more patients in a more timely and convenient fashion, with the ultimate goal of actually being able to not only monitor but predict,” Rieder said.

Through machine learning technology, Pharmasees is developing software that can be paired to predict outcomes for patients with respiratory diseases like COVID-19, based on patients’ vital data.

“That’s where the zero-effort technology comes in. The AI model can use these data trends to inform clinicians on who will get better, who is likely to require certain interventions, to help them with decision making,” he said.

“If we can intervene before the person is in the ICU, it helps with cost and resource efficiency, and most importantly, avoids trauma and bad outcomes for the patient.”

As product development on these projects moves forward, Rieder says the next step for Pharmasees is to commercialize the technology in a way that is cost-effective.

“We want to get cheap, Canadian-made solutions for our clinicians and researchers, but a cheap solution isn’t easy. We're always looking for more investor capital,” he shared.

Reflecting on Pharmasees growth to date, Rieder says the company’s presence at the Robarts Innovation Hub was integral to their success. Pharmasees benefits from the ability to collaborate with and draw on expertise from several likeminded researchers, including Robert Gros, PhD, David Holdsworth, PhD, Rob Bartha, PhD, Baset Elzagallaai, PhD and Grace Parraga, PhD.

“We have a growing group of collaborators across Western that we are working with, and want to extend our collaboration even further across the campus and the city, as well as in Waterloo.”