Medtech goes global one niche at a time

Cover_art.jpgFinding success in a market dominated by large, well-funded firms is all but impossible without an eye on a niche market and a view to going global from day one.

By James Bowen
From SCAN's Print Edition

Between 50 and 60 companies comprise Ottawa’s medical technologies cluster. And each knows all-to-well that finding success in a market dominated by large, well-funded firms is all but impossible without an eye on a niche market and a view to going global from day one.
Every second episode of television’s CSI: Miami finds an investigator using a cotton swab to gather saliva from a suspect’s mouth for DNA identification back at the lab, inevitably giving the dour detective the evidence needed to nab the villain. More sophisticated viewers, however, realize that art often fails to imitate life on the world’s most popular police drama.
“Cotton swabs are not a particularly effective way to gather high quality DNA samples,” says Ian Curry, president of DNA Genotek. “The amount of useful DNA collected that way is quite low.”

The Ottawa-based company has found a better way, a proprietary technology that is helping to collect DNA the world over one spit at a time. In 2003, the Human Genome Project identified all of the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA and determined the sequences of the three billion chemical base pairs that make up DNA. Now research around the globe is using the findings to determine genetic predisposition to a wide variety of diseases.

Such research requires collecting thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of DNA samples. Not long ago, gathering high-quality DNA involved drawing blood, but this invasive procedure is impractical in today’s DNA-based research wherein large volumes of samples are needed. Sufficient numbers of volunteers can be hard to find when asked to go under the syringe. In addition, it is simply too costly to maintain a collection site staffed with trained medical personnel. H. Chaim Birnboim, founder and chief scientific officer of DNA Genotek and a long-time research scientist at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre, reasoned that saliva could substitute for blood, but what was needed was an inexpensive and easy way to gather samples. He came up with an ingenious system whereby saliva could be collected at home using a specialized tube with a lid containing a patented preservative and then mailed to researchers. Called Oragene, the agent is activated when the lid is closed and can preserve DNA for five years at room temperature and “indefinitely” at -20C in a standard home freezer.

2007 saw DNA Genotek increase its customer base significantly and found organizations and companies using its “Oragene” system in novel ways. At the Susan G. Komen Arkansas Race for the Cure event in Little Rock, it was used to gather thousands of samples in an associated initiative dubbed “Spit for the Cure.” This past January, 23andMe, a Google-backed company that provides genetic information to customers over the Internet, used Oragene to collect DNA samples at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The company was named a 2008 Technology Pioneer by the prestigious forum – which bestowed the same honour on DNA Genotek in 2006. Oragene is currently being used in thousands of labs in over 75 countries worldwide.

Moving from spitting to that plague of many relationships, we tend to think of snoring as an annoying yet harmless occurrence, but it is not always so. The severe snoring affliction called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) – an often overlooked medical condition affecting 4% of the male population and two out of every 100 women – can cause morbidity and even mortality. The rate of occurrence increases with age (persons 65 and older are 10% more likely to suffer from OSA), as well as with increased weight. During an OSA episode, either complete or partial obstruction of the airway can occur as associated muscles relax to the point of collapse. Complications include excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, coronary artery disease and stroke.

Braebon Medical Corporation, headquartered in Carp, is addressing the problem with MediByte, a sleep apnea and snoring test device. Says founder and CEO Dr. Richard Bonato, “The major benefit is the medical test is performed in the home, which means many, many more people will be diagnosed and then treated for this life threatening disease. Thirty to fifty percent [of the population] snore, and snoring is like an alarm telling you there is something wrong with your breathing during sleep. If people with sleep apnea don’t get diagnosed, [they] will die or develop serious consequences. Guaranteed. If we called it ‘wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-gasping-choking-and-die-in-your-sleep disease,’ [the condition] would get a lot more exposure… Once sleep apnea is properly diagnosed, treatment with CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), oral appliances or surgical procedures is available. Quality of life is immediately improved.”

A recent change in US health policy bodes well for Dr. Bonato’s company. In December 2007, both The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the US federal government health insurance agency, US MediCare/MediCaid, approved the use of portable sleep apnea and snoring equipment for home sleep testing. Once diagnosed using information collected from the equipment, patients can receive funding for treatment, allowing them – and their spouses – to sleep easier at night.

Another local company at the forefront of medical technology development is Panacis Medical. In conjunction with researchers at Bloorview Kids Rehab hospital and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, Panacis is developing a portable, non-invasive device to detect dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing. Called an aspirometer, the next-generation medical device has the potential to reduce common swallowing related problems and benefit children with neurological disabilities by reducing aspiration risk during feeding. According to Steve Carkner, founder of Panacis, “The aspirometer is a product that may prove to have positive effects on the quality of life for many patients with swallowing difficulties.”

Many people suffer from vision-related problems beyond what corrective lenses can fix. With this in mind, eSight is using its proprietary image processing algorithms to produce sunglasses that combine digital video capture and display to help those with vision related diseases. The product is aimed largely at the elderly, who suffer disproportionately from macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa and a host of other retinal diseases. Containing a camera and a display screen, the glasses capture an image of what the wearer is looking at and present a modified video of that image on the inside of the lenses. If the wearer’s vision is hindered by a large dark spot at its centre, or if he/she sees everyday objects having blurred edges, the technology corrects for that particular disability. And the market for eSight doesn’t stop there. The company is also marketing the sunglasses for sporting events. No need to bring binoculars to the hockey game anymore. With its voice-activated zoom, rewind and slow-motion replay, eSight sunglasses can rewind the action, focus in and replay the winning goal!

The Ottawa medical tech cluster is developing or producing more than a dozen products because of “a business model that sees us forming joint development partnerships with other companies and with institutions such as Bloorview,” says Mr. Carkner of Panacis. “We are shipping medically certified products all over the world. And they are manufactured here in-house, in Ottawa!”

The very nature of the health care market means that solutions are sought and accepted regardless of where they come from. “There are very large niche market opportunities,” says Mr. Curry of DNA Genotech, and geography, for many health market opportunities, is not an inhibitor. Health practitioners, researchers and patients have many of the same issues, regardless of their location. The health community is a global community.”

James Bowen, PhD, PMP, CMC is an Ottawa technology entrepreneur and adjunct professor at uOttawa’s Telfer School of Management.

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