Disruptors Welcome: Canadian digital health innovators buoyed by Bayer
A wristwatch that monitors cardiac activity 24/7 and sends alerts if help is needed, offering freedom and peace of mind for those at risk for heart attack. A handheld device that monitors an array of nutrient levels with just a single drop of blood, delivering lab-quality results within a few minutes and conveniently at home or in clinic. These remarkable, potentially transformative Canadian digital health innovations aren’t available yet, but Bayer’s Grants4Apps™ program (G4A) is helping to make sure the bright minds behind them get the guidance they need to succeed.
Amina Health wins Bayer’s Global grant
Bobby Green, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Vitameter, recently rebranded Amina Health, and is working to bring its novel nutrient monitor to the market. Vitameter is the sole Canadian company to be awarded the Bayer global Grants4Apps (G4A) grant to date, receiving €50,000 in seed funding and the opportunity to spend 100 days at Bayer’s Berlin site in 2015, working and learning directly with the company’s team of experts.
“When we were applying for the Bayer grant, we had an initial proof of concept, but we needed a lot of help to validate the technology, the market, and understand how those pieces come together,” says Bobby. “Bayer has an outstanding reputation; they are perfect for an early-stage medical company because they provide credibility and their mentors have a great understanding of the industry.”
No company, no matter how innovative, can have a monopoly on good ideas.
Founded in Berlin in 2013, G4A has evolved into a global program focused on helping innovative digital health and care startups grow, enabling positive disruption and progress within the digital and care universe. To date, more than 50 startups from 13 countries have been supported by the G4A program globally. Criteria include how unique the idea is and its potential, company maturity, existing product prototypes, the team, as well as the fit to Bayer’s areas of expertise and focus.
More than 100 people from across Bayer’s network are involved in the global program’s selection process, including Shurjeel Choudhri, Bayer Canada’s Head of Medical and Scientific Affairs and a Senior Vice President of Bayer Inc. Shurjeel was an early proponent of supporting digital health innovation at Bayer, and is a strong advocate for the company’s commitment to open innovation.
“No company, no matter how innovative, can have a monopoly on good ideas,” explains Shurjeel “We have tremendous expertise in drug development but not in many other areas like digital technology or diagnostic testing. Innovative ideas in these other areas are often complimentary to our drug development and commercialization strategies.”
He adds, “There is also academic work going on in universities that can contribute to our research and development initiatives. It is important that we reach out and benefit from the exciting research being conducted in Canadian universities. There is definitely tremendous value in crowdsourcing.”
HelpWear Technologies wins Bayer’s Canadian grant
The mutual benefits of the G4A program is echoed by André Bertram, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of HelpWear Wearable Technologies Inc. HelpWear’s device, called the HeartWatch, monitors a user's blood pressure, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels 24/7, using proprietary ECG technology to help predict if someone will have a heart attack. The HeartWatch can even alert Emergency Medical Services, if needed. HelpWear was one of three recipients of the first Canadian Grants4Apps program in 2017, receiving $10,000 CAD and the opportunity to spend 88 days working alongside mentors at Bayer’s Mississauga head office. The other recipients were Avro Life Science and Mozazz Patient Engagement for Complex Care.
When you have recognition by a major pharmaceutical company like Bayer, suddenly it’s almost like your two-and-a-half-year-old company is really a 150-year-old company.
HelpWear was established in 2015 when its founders, André and Frank Nguyen were high school seniors. For André, the association with Bayer was a game changer.
“The biggest challenge early on for a medical device company in the Canadian ecosystem is finding and curating those relationships with clinical partners that will eventually be development partners,” André says. “Specifically for a device company founded by two people under the age of 20, it’s incredibly difficult to find those key critical influencers who are going to help you design and build out the technology overall.”
“When you have recognition by a major pharmaceutical company like Bayer, suddenly it’s almost like your two-and-a-half-year-old company is really a 150-year-old company,” he adds. “The individuals within Bayer, and Bayer’s status as a whole, were huge factors in helping us grow our clinical network, our user network and our partnership network faster.”
Grants4Apps gives us a perspective about how markets are shifting, how we are moving to the digitization of health.
André and his team felt particularly supported by Antonio Ciaccia, Director and Head, Cardiovascular Medicine, Medical and Scientific Affairs at Bayer in Canada. Antonio served as a mentor to the HelpWear team during their 2017 in-office period, and says the employees involved in Mississauga benefited from the interaction too.
“The Bayer team really felt the energy this group brought,” Antonio recalls. “They are fast-paced, as they are looking to get their product on the market as quickly as possible. We have that mentality as well, but they are smaller, more nimble, less process-based. Their excitement was contagious, and we wanted to help them as much as we possibly could.”
Huge impact that supports 'Science for a better life'
For Bobby and André, through programs like G4A, Bayer is offering a world-class opportunity that digital healthcare startups should jump on.
“It’s clear that this had a huge impact on us,” says Bobby, who credits the G4A experience with helping Amina Health decide to pursue a longer, more rigorous route to regulatory approval in Canada than they originally planned, which they believe will help them make the most impact. “Our experience working with Bayer allowed us to avoid numerous mistakes that could have killed the company, what we learned has definitely shaped the company into what it is today.”
André says HelpWear used the advice and experience gained through G4A to build what he calls their “strategy bible,” something that will continue to help guide their decisions in the future. He advises startups who are considering applying to plan to use their time at Bayer wisely.
“You have three months inside one of the largest, oldest and most reputable life sciences companies on the planet,” he notes. “The way you are not going to get $10K of value, but $200K or $1M long term out of this collaboration, is by sitting down and thinking through strategically how Bayer can help. Think about what you want to get out of it, and Bayer will be more than helpful in getting you there.”
“Bayer has found a way to support the innovation ecosystem, first in Germany and now in Canada,” comments André. “It is 350 per cent that Bayer wants nothing from you but to help.”
Antonio agrees that is the direction of the program, but believes the benefits to Bayer make it more than purely philanthropic.
“This program allows us to become more aware of the environment outside of day-to-day pharma,” he says. “This gives us a perspective about how markets are shifting, how we are moving to the digitization of health. There are lots of disruptors coming that we should be able to anticipate.”
“In terms of open innovation, I think we have been leaders,” says Shurjeel. “It’s a wonderful experience because you’re exposed to startups that are doing very innovative work. This is opening our eyes to some of the most exciting health technologies out there.”
Inviting Canadian innovators: Bayer’s Open Innovation Programs
The G4A program is just one facet of Bayer’s Open Innovation approach, which includes a number of crowdsourcing and co-working initiatives. This program began in 2009 and since then has help support over 285 projects in 60 countries
Shurjeel Choudhri, Bayer Canada’s head of Medical and Scientific Affairs, believes Canadian digital health innovators are second to none.
“We have some of the most innovative people in the world,” says Shurjeel. “Yet when we looked at the applicants to the global Grants4Apps program, there were few Canadians. We want to stimulate Canadian startups and encourage Canadian researchers to apply.”
Bayer is working to do just that through a second Toronto Grants4Apps challenge, tentatively scheduled for 2019. The company’s commitment to Canadian innovation isn’t limited to digital health innovation. Canadian startups and researchers are also encouraged to apply to any of the other Bayer Open Innovation programs that apply to their projects.
Innovation within Bayer: Hope and HYPE
Last May, the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada announced it was introducing a first-of-its-kind 3D surgery simulator that would allow doctors to train more effectively to perform the complex thoracic surgery needed for many patients with Chronic Thromboembolic Pulmonary Hypertension (CTEPH), a rare and debilitating disease caused by chronic blood clots within the lungs.
This medical advance was made possible thanks to the NRC’s collaboration with Antonio Ciaccia, Head, Medical Affairs - Cardiovascular Medicine and Sahar Javaherian, Medical Scientific Advisor, Bayer Inc. The idea was supported in part through Bayer’s internal innovation support program, called HYPE. Through HYPE, employees are encouraged to share their innovative technology-based ideas; those with the highest potential may be eligible for funding.
The surgical simulator is already being used to help doctors prepare for this challenging surgery, potentially improving the quality of life for thousands of Canadian patients.
Where are they now?
Updates on Canadian Digital Health Innovators Amina Health and HelpWear
Based in Kitchener, Amina Health has six employees and is currently hiring. The company continues to progress towards regulatory approval for its developmental nutrient monitoring device, and recently began welcoming applications to its Early Access Program to enable beta testing, an important step in the process.
Based in Toronto, HelpWear has eight employees. The company has a clinical partnership with St. Michael’s Hospital through the Biomedical Zone, which is a joint collaboration incubator between Ryerson University and St. Michael’s Hospital. HelpWear’s first product, the HeartWatch, is expected to enter clinical trials soon.