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Shaping the future of Alberta’s bio industries

2016 Biomedical Engineering Industry Partnership Day

Jennifer Allford
The 2016 Biomedical Engineering Industry Partnership Day at the University of Calgary brought together industry, entrepreneurs, government officials, students and faculty to discuss the future of the industry in Alberta. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Undergraduate and graduate students got a crash course in challenges and opportunities in Alberta’s health and bio-related industries last week at the 2016 Biomedical Engineering Industry Partnership Day.

It included industry representatives, local and national entrepreneurs who have commercialized biomedical products, government and agency officials, as well as graduate and undergraduate students and faculty. The full day of panel discussions and presentations also had ample time for people to swap information and business cards. 

“We wanted to provide an opportunity for an inclusive discussion around concrete topics,” says Elena Di Martino, who co-organized the event and is an associate professor at the Schulich School of Engineering and member of Centre for Bioengineering Research and Education (CBRE).  “Students also met with funders and people in industry.”

Building a stronger ecosystem

A panel discussion about the future of the biomedical engineering (BME) industry in Alberta covered everything from how to build a stronger biomedical “ecosystem” to educating oil and gas investors on the long term value of BME products. The message was that Alberta has a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on expertise and facilities not found elsewhere in Canada.

“Given what’s going on right now in oil and gas we need diversity (in economy) even more for our future,” said panelist Rona Li, director of medical devices and sector development at Alberta Economic Development and Trade ministry. “BME can help us diversify our economy, create high quality jobs and keep talent in the province.”

The panel also included people who have successfully commercialized products including Dr. Breanne Everett, the CEO of Orpyx, who invented wearable sensor-based technologies for people with diabetes. She told the 200 people in the audience that innovation requires more “cross pollination” and fewer silos. “We should not be afraid of blurring the line between the university and industry,” she said. 

Increasing risk tolerance

David Alton, COO of Edmonton’s Aquila Diagnostic Systems, is working with his fifth start up in a decade. “Most businesses fail. One in ten is a smashing success,” said Alton. “The ecosystem feeds off its self, what’s lacking are start ups; we need the students, the young people, starting lots of companies. Many will fail and that’s OK.”

Assistant professor in Comparative Biology and Experimental Medicine in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Mark Ungrin, developed a successful microtissue-generation technology, AggreWell. “There is not a lot of tolerance for failure in academia,” he said. “We need to enhance our risk tolerance.” 

When it comes to technology transfer, figuring out who owns the intellectual property (IP) is critical for any new venture said Darryl Bidulock, senior software developer at Arterys. “IP is very important to a company,” he said. “You need to make money and the university needs to think about that.”

Putting “muscle” behind BME

As for Alberta’s relatively small population competing with larger markets to build a biomedical industry, Peter Fenwick, a health care management consultant said: “It’s not about size. It’s about being faster, more nimble and smarter.”

And it’s about working together, said Reg Joseph, VP of Health with Alberta Innovates. “If we want to have a cluster we need to build it, we need to put muscle behind it,” he said. “It’s not going to happen unless we all work together to build the sector.”

“The panel was fantastic,” says Matthew Milne, a third-year student in the Schulich School of Engineering in the undergraduate BME specialization. “Seeing people and hearing their stories about how they achieved their businesses and specifically the avenues that exist to create these companies gives us a bit of hope. Things like this make us think ‘Alright, maybe Alberta is where it’s at.’”

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives solutions to our most pressing health challenges. Our biomedical engineering researchers make a significant impact in our communities by extending lives, improving quality of life, promoting independence, and providing more effective options for front-line health-care professionals.