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Surge in health-tech innovation could be silver lining in COVID-19 crisis

Before the COVID-19 crisis began to hit North American hospitals, Think Research chief executive Sachin Aggarwal said his health-tech company would typically push out its updated clinical protocols to clients once a month. Now those updates may come in just a matter or hours.

“In a place like Canada, every single hospital is getting ready,” Aggarwal told the Financial Post in an interview. “Whether you’re remote or small, or you’re a mid-sized community hospital, you’re getting ready.”

As thousands of companies have been forced to close operations due to social distancing requirements, Think Research is part of a small subset in the health innovation space that have seen business surge as a result of the pandemic, bringing new technologies to the fore in an upheaval that could outlast the crisis itself.

Tools like virtual care are from zero to 60 in seven days, and that’s never happened in health care

Think Research chief executive Sachin Aggarwal

Aggarwal said Think, which ensures front-line health-care workers have up-to-date information on procedures and best practices at their fingertips, was more or less designed with a crisis like COVID-19 in mind: a fast-moving public heath emergency in which doctors and nurses need the latest research quickly.

Today, he said basically 100 per cent of his business is oriented toward providers who are girding for the surge in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. While his focus is on helping them navigate the current crisis, he is hoping some of those institutions stick around after the crisis has passed, as well.

OnCall, another Toronto-based tech startup, focuses on virtual care, providing secure video chat for clinicians to see patients remotely. Initially, founder and chief executive Nicholas Chepesiuk said he didn’t expect COVID-19 to impact the business, because they were primarily focused on mental health and addiction services, but when social distancing measures went into widespread effect in mid-March, the business was overwhelmed.

“We saw an increase of about 10 times what we would usually see, in requests for calls, demos, information about the software,” Chepesiuk said. “It just hasn’t stopped since then.”

He said the company is trying to get customers on board as quickly as possible, but they have to be careful not to overwhelm their systems as they try to grow to meet demand.

“It’s a very difficult time for a lot of businesses, and while we are growing a lot right now, I want to make sure we’re not putting too much stress on our operations,” he said.

“We’re trying to not just find customers that are looking to use this in a pandemic for a couple months, or however long it takes. (We’re) trying to find customers that maybe this starts the conversation for this.”

In Quebec City, Medicago Inc. is focused on finding vaccines using a plant-based technology; the company normally works in 10-year horizons, because that’s how long drug discovery typically takes. But as soon as the novel coronavirus genetic sequence was made available, chief executive Bruce Clark said they set to work, and they’ve already developed a virus-like molecule that could work as a vaccine.

Ottawa has announced that it will be funding clinical trials this summer, but Clark said even on an expedited timeline, it’s unlikely the vaccine will be available before the second half of 2021.

“This is such a fluid and dynamic situation for products like ours, if they happen to show efficacy early on, depending on the severity of the outbreak the regulators may decide to make a decision to introduce a product earlier than what we would have anticipated,”  he said.

“That’s not a decision that we will make. That’s a decision that the regulatory authorities will make.”

Sheryl Thingvold, a senior advisor on health venture services at MaRS Discovery District, a Toronto incubator for innovative startups, said that she’s seeing lots of companies pivoting their businesses to try to help with the COVID-19 pandemic, both because they want to help, and because they need the business.

Such sudden changes of course come with both opportunity and risk.

“I think these companies need to be careful,” she said. “Like they still need to do their market research, because they’re going to lag behind the health companies getting to market.”

But she also believes the pandemic could drive a wave of innovation, and spur major changes to the health-care system, especially in areas like virtual care using secure video-chat software.

“The province hasn’t had reimbursement codes for that, ever,” she said. “And last week they put them through, so companies like Maple that do telehealth medicine, this is great news for them.”

Aggarwal, of Think Research, echoed that sentiment.

“The idea that we need to bring patients in to give them brief updates about their condition is a thing of the past. We’re now realizing that’s crazy, it has a real impact putting people in danger by bringing them into hospitals or clinics. That never should have been how we delivered health care,” he said.

“This is really putting a fine point on that. This is where tools like virtual care are from zero to 60 in seven days, and that’s never happened in health care. Tell me the last time technology was adopted that fast.”

He said that because of the crisis, normally slow-moving hospitals and health-care systems are ready to implement changes fast, and accept imperfections along the way. Aggarwal said he’s hearing from clients who are being inundated with innovative products to address the crisis.

“We definitely hear from our hospital clients that they’re being bombarded with this tool and that solution,” he said.

“What’s going to happen in the health-care system now is a faster pace of innovation than we’ve ever seen. We’ll come out of this with a health-care system completely transformed.”

• Email: jmcleod@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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