Vancouver tech startups take aim at autism, diabetes, and bone surgeries

B.C. health innovations accelerated by university hubs

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      Millions of people with diabetes use a glucose meter every day to measure their blood-sugar levels. Austin Lee’s father is one of them.

      In his office at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus, the 25-year-old PhD student in chemistry told the Georgia Straight his dad and other Type 2 diabetics—whose bodies don’t make enough insulin or don’t use it properly—will benefit from the wireless device his startup, Shield Diagnostics, is prototyping. The Shield is a smartphone case with an embedded glucose meter that, along with a matching app, will simplify the recording, analysis, and communication of blood-sugar data.

      Users will insert test strips bearing blood samples into the back of the case for reading. The app will automatically log the data, display it in graphs that will reveal trends, and allow patients to share the information with their doctors via email or a web-based service.

      “Basically, if you see these trends, you can tell right away what you are doing wrong in terms of your meal plan and your exercise,” said Lee, who lives in Surrey.

      Founded in 2013, Shield Diagnostics is based out of Venture Connection, a business incubator that offers entrepreneurship training, business-development services, and mentorship free of charge to SFU students and alumni. It’s one of several health-technology startups looking to change the world that are being nurtured by accelerators and incubators affiliated with universities in the Vancouver area.

      Shield Diagnostics cofounder Austin Lee is developing a smartphone case with an embedded glucose meter.
      Stephen Hui

      At Vancouver General Hospital, Elise Huisman showed the Straight what Arbutus Medical, the company she cofounded in 2014, has been pilot-testing at hospitals in Haiti, the Philippines, Syria, and Uganda. It’s a covering, made of stainless steel and medical-grade fabric, that allows a standard hardware-store drill to be used in bone surgeries.

      The Arbutus Drill Cover is designed for use in developing countries as well as conflict and disaster zones. Huisman, who’s a PhD student in rehabilitation sciences at UBC, says hand-powered drills are often employed in these low-resource settings, where $30,000 orthopedic drills are out of reach.

      “They can’t access those surgical drills because it’s too expensive,” the 30-year-old Vancouver resident said. “They just can’t pay for it. With our solution, they can do more surgery but also more safe surgery.”

      Arbutus Medical is one of five social ventures selected for the third cohort of the Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub, an accelerator program run by the Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. Over the next year, these startups will benefit from business coaching, coworking space, summer-student interns, and workshops at no charge.

      “They will give us a lot of business insight, but also social-entrepreneurship insights,” Huisman said. “They have a whole network, basically, of different people with different skills that we can contact. That’s such a valuable and powerful environment for us to be in—to help us grow and develop.”

      Huisman noted that, while Arbutus Medical won a $112,000 seed grant from Grand Challenges Canada last September, her team is seeking investors. After gaining regulatory approval in Canada, Europe, or the United States, the company hopes to sell kits—containing one drill and five covers, enough to equip one operating room—for $2,000.

      Wearable Therapeutics founder Lisa Fraser demonstrates the use of the Snug Vest.
      Stephen Hui

      A collaboration of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, Emily Carr University of Art and Design, SFU, and the University of Victoria, VentureLabs is one of a number of sites around the province delivering the B.C. Innovation Council’s Venture Acceleration Program. The program, which offers networking opportunities and coaching by executives in residence, is based on a four-stage growth model (product validation, market validation, market penetration, and market expansion).

      At the VentureLabs offices at Discovery Parks Vancouver, Wearable Therapeutics founder and chief executive officer Lisa Fraser donned the Snug Vest, the Health Canada–licensed medical device that her startup launched in 2013. The 26-year-old Vancouver resident told the Straight she came up with the concept of “wearable anxiety relief” while completing a bachelor’s degree in industrial design at Emily Carr.

      Inflated with a hand pump, the stylish vest puts pressure on the wearer’s torso, inducing calm. According to Fraser, by providing “deep-pressure therapy”, the vest has helped improve the lives of people with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.

      It’s available in six sizes (small kid to large adult) and two colour schemes (turquoise and black, and red and black) for $395 on the Snug Vest website. In 2014, the vest won a prestigious Red Dot Award for product design.

      “I didn’t want the product to stigmatize the individual, so it really does look, some people say, like a MEC– or Lululemon-type vest,” Fraser said. “It really doesn’t look like a medical device. That was extremely important when we were developing our product, and that’s definitely one of the things that sets us aside from our competition.”

      Established in 2011 as Squeezease Therapy, Wearable Therapeutics has other products in the works. Fraser said her startup is in the midst of closing its first round of seed funding. Her goal is to turn that investment into 15,000 customers or $5 million in revenue.

      Last year, Fraser was filmed for an upcoming episode of Dragons’ Den, the CBC reality-TV series. She noted companies pay fees and sometimes part with equity to work out of VentureLabs, where entrepreneurs often share their knowledge.

      “It’s been great being here, because I get surrounded by other CEOs,” Fraser said. “I think that’s the most valuable to me—just being around other startups.”