It isn't easy to commercialize scientific research. The process involves many steps and researchers must find viable markets for their inventions. The challenges haven't stopped researcher Mark Towler, though: he already has three startup companies to his credit.
A native of England, Towler joined Ryerson University's Department of Biomedical Engineering in 2013. Today, he is one of several researchers affiliated with the Institute for Biomedical Engineering, Science and Technology (iBEST), a partnership between Ryerson and St. Michael's Hospital. Launched in early 2016 and located within the hospital's Keenan Research Centre, iBEST is a hub for the study and development of innovative health-care ideas. It also supports startup biomedical companies seeking to improve patient care.
Although Towler is a materials science researcher by training (“I create devices to make the body work better”), he's also interested in diagnosing diseases. His most recent innovation, Osentia, is an over-the-counter test for osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become increasingly brittle. The technology was developed and commercialized by Towler's startup company Crescent Ops (London, UK).
According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation one in three women and one in five men over age 50 will experience an osteoporosis-related fracture. Currently, a DEXA scan, which measures bone mineral density, is the only diagnostic test for osteoporosis. With the growing prevalence of the disorder in the aging population, however, there's a need to identify people who are at high risk of bone fracture, not just those who have low bone mineral density.
The first at-home screening test for fracture risk, Osentia requires a fingernail or toenail clipping to be sent for laboratory analysis. Individuals also complete a questionnaire about their health and lifestyle. Osentia will then accurately provide a person's risk of a fracture, which is an early indicator of his or her risk of developing osteoporosis. The results are returned via email or post within seven days.
Osentia flags those who require diagnostic testing and should take steps to help prevent and minimize the development of osteoporosis. The kit, which costs 40 pounds ($65 Canadian) and is available online and over the counter in drug stores in the United Kingdom, has been endorsed by Dr. Dawn Harper, the UK's equivalent of Dr. Oz. In addition to collaborating with local clinicians to gather enough clinical data to launch Osentia in North America, Towler is working to demonstrate the test's effectiveness as a diagnostic tool for use in pharmacies and hospitals.
But those aren't the only projects on Towler's proverbial plate. His Toronto-based startup company, Solas Ops, is commercializing a tool to diagnose inflammatory arthritis. A third company, soon to be incorporated, is focused on developing a range of medical devices for fixation and stabilization of fractures. Its first product will be an adhesive that fills bone voids based around patented technology. The company is aptly named Banna Medical (or “binding”) by Towler's Irish-speaking wife and is the result of collaborative work with other professors in Ryerson and orthopedic surgeons based in Toronto.
Now, with funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Towler is also exploring novel ways to use glass in the body. For instance, as a coating for surgical implants, as an infection-fighting agent in knee replacements and as a clot-forming material in open wounds.
The applications may be different, but they're all rooted in the same desire, says Towler. “I'm looking to apply my knowledge of glass and ceramics to create unique solutions for health care,” he says.