With the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declaring COVID-19 an international pandemic, nations have doubled down on “flattening the curve” of the crisis by imposing unprecedented controls on citizens to slow the spread of the virus and, therefore, save lives and relieve exhausted healthcare systems. America has banned travel from most of continental Europe; regions in China are still in lockdown; and African countries have moved to restrict European visitors.
Such a global problem requires a global solution. This call to action has galvanized Canada’s tech community, many of them shifting their everyday business pursuits in hopes of bringing this crisis to a decisive end.
Here’s how Canadian startups are tackling the COVID-19 outbreak.
Breathing new life into hospitals
How do you choose which person to save? Doctors in Italy have had to make this horrendous decision because their hospitals don’t have enough breathing machines to serve critically ill patients. Startup Thornhill Medical does not want more people to suffer a similar fate. At the behest of the federal government, the startup has ramped up production of its life-saving ventilators with Guelph-based manufacturer Linamar. Both companies are tasked with producing 500 ventilators, with Ottawa buying an additional 1,000 machines from other Canadian companies. Rough estimates suggest thousands of ventilators need to be added to Canada’s existing 5,000 to avoid a healthcare-system collapse — encouraging news, then, that on April 1, the province of Ontario ordered 10,000 more.
Hyperloop startup TransPod has taken up the ventilator cause, too. Already in the midst of designing a fresh-air system for its vehicle cabins, the company’s engineers started testing the new breathing machines the week of March 23, and are working with medical communities across Canada and overseas to deploy it.
Sending pedestrians on the safest route
Even before the coronavirus sent the world reeling, startup iMerciv was already changing lives for the better with its BuzzClip, a wearable device that alerts visually impaired people about obstacles directly in their path. Now, the company is using its resources to also fight COVID-19 with the launch of its new pedestrian navigation app. The software, in real time, advises users to avoid busy streets; creates “timed routes” that start and end at one’s residence (for exercise or getting supplies) and avoids COVID-related risks; and incorporates voluntary survey tools to help track the spread of the virus.
Empowering patients with knowledge
Health tech company Careteam has added a new COVID-19 testing site to its arsenal. The tool gives patients specific care plans according to each category of coronavirus-related case — self-isolation, quarantine due to potential exposure, quarantine due to symptoms, or test positive — providing both patients and caregivers with information relevant to the situation, and allowing the healthcare provider to monitor and follow up. And when the patient’s status changes, they are shifted to a different registry and associated care plan, while the latest COVID-19 developments are pushed to relevant patients.
Funding crucial medical supplies
Toronto-based Nanoleaf is celebrated around the world for its beautiful, energy-efficient light panels — and that also means the company boasts access to an unmatched supply chain of people and materials. So, Nanoleaf has pivoted, directing all resources to the manufacturing and distribution of the masks, goggles and gloves so sorely lacking in Canadian and the American healthcare systems. With 50,000 masks already donated, the company has also created a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $1 million.
Saving the most vulnerable with greater communication
It’s hard to believe that many doctors still rely on pagers and phones to reach colleagues. Hypercare is eradicating these outdated practices with an app that helps physicians communicate with messaging, workshops and schedule management . And in recent weeks, Hypercare has applied its tech to helping society’s most vulnerable: triaging and sharing information in nursing homes to avoid unnecessary in-person assessments; coordinating with emergency departments in homeless shelters; and working with hospitals to manage on-call ICU physicians when patients show signs of deterioration.
Putting portable tests in public hands
Our tech colleagues in the capital have once again stepped up for citizens in Canada and around the world. Ottawa-based Spartan Bioscience recently struck a deal with the government to put portable COVID-19 testing units in the hands of the public. The devices — repurposed from their original use as DNA analyzers — produce results in 30 minutes, and if all goes to plan, will be put into service in less than eight weeks.
Sharing stories, saving lives
From Zika to MERS and now COVID-19, startup Figure 1 has made it its mission to “democratize medical knowledge,” partnering with institutions like Doctors Without Borders and the Mount Sinai Health System. Now the company is asking professionals and civilians alike to share their stories of research, hope and survival. Updated several times per day, Figure 1’s new forum showcases firsthand accounts (academic journals, essays, vlogs, and more) from across the globe.
Paying it forward
Even cleantech businesses are answering the COVID-19 call of duty. Earlier this week, home-energy manager Parity announced its Pay It Forward program, an incentive plan that will help new clients offset the unprecedented energy costs associated with the pandemic, from hospitals to residences. The campaign offers $10,000 for condo boards to help offset the immediate and unexpected financial burden of whole communities now confined to working and living in their homes.
Spreading information faster than any disease
Nine days before the WHO alerted the world of COVID-19’s existence, the team at Toronto-based BlueDot spotted the first signs of the coming outbreak. And on March 23, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau validated the company’s achievement by announcing the government would use BlueDot’s AI platform to track the coronavirus’s spread globally. When it comes to viral outbreaks, every day is valuable: stopping a pandemic means getting the right information to the right people at the right time. BlueDot fights disease by culling public health sources, moderated sources, mass media (10,000 articles per day in more than 60 languages) and flight itineraries to anticipate the spread of infectious diseases, reducing the time to make a risk assessment from weeks to seconds.
Consider also DNAstack. Like Google for genomic data, the company uses machine-learning algorithms to help researchers determine which genetic markers predispose patients to certain diseases; then, by classifying subjects based on their response to medications, treatments can be targeted to specific people and even genes. It’s all about sharing information among the health community to achieve the maximum communal benefit, namely, the discovery of affordable, life-saving drugs. And the startup has repurposed its tech to combat the coronavirus. DNAstack’s COVID-19 Beacon (compliant with the Beacon API, an international open-source protocol developed by the Global Alliance for Genomic and Health) helps researchers discover sequences with specific genetic mutations and chart their geographic and evolutionary origins — quickly and without friction.
Repurposing existing drugs
Doctors and scientists everywhere are scrambling to produce a coronavirus vaccine, though, many experts here at home question whether that is the right strategy. You see, vaccines often take years and billions of dollars to develop. Startup Cyclica wants to expedite the process, using its AI platform to identify drugs, already functional and approved by the FDA, to unlock proteins that could be effective against COVID-19. The company is working in partnership with renowned Chinese institute Materia Medica on the initiative, bringing some of the most respected international medical minds together under one (virtual) roof. And on March 30, Cyclica launched its “stimulus package” — free use of the company’s platform for any researcher or biotech company either directly fighting COVID-19, or has seen work stifled due to the crisis.
Making education our greatest defense
Colleges and universities in many regions are moving to remote, online teaching to avoid the gathering of large crowds. This will be a stressful time for students and teachers, so education software company Top Hat — active in more than 750 of North America’s top post-secondary institutions — is providing its platform free of charge to those making the change. The company is also offering its army of support agents and instructional designers to advise faculty unfamiliar with digital classrooms.
Breaking the cycle with breaking news
In response to the escalating COVID-19 situation, benefits startup Dialogue decided to create a free tool to give Canadians access to the latest public health information. Named Chloe, the virtual assistant aggregates the data from federal, provincial and territorial health authorities. It prompts users through a set of questions about their location, travel history and pre-existing conditions to identify their risks. Dialogue has also partnered with Sun Life Financial to offer virtual healthcare services to the insurance provider’s company benefits customers. Based in Montreal, Dialogue helps users connect to healthcare benefits, saving time, money and peace of mind for both employers and employees. Meanwhile, fellow benefits provider League has created an HR Resource Center to help companies build effective virus strategies for their workforces.
Empower Health, for its part, recently launched C19.ca, a COVID-19 resource that is being updated regularly with reliable information from local, provincial and federal healthcare organizations. Crucially, the site provides detailed information about where COVID-19 assessment centres are located across Canada.
Making medicine more efficient
No amount of medicine or resources will stop this pandemic if healthcare providers are out of sync. Think Research, headquartered in Toronto, is a software company providing clinical decision support tools used by acute-care doctors, nurses and long-term care staff. The company helps translate rapidly developing clinical recommendations for COVID-19 into tools and checklists, freeing workers of administrative duties and vanquishing antiquated tech like fax machines. Think Research’s protocols are helping to minimize the spread of the virus, ensuring patients receive care in line with the most up to date treatments. There’s also CoHealth, a company with an app that helps create, share and measure data among health workers; and Input Health, a startup with an app that fosters patient-doctor relationships through personal questionnaires, streamlined documentation of history and outcomes, as well as virtual care and SMS notifications.
North Bay’s MetricAid specializes in digital scheduling for healthcare professionals. So, it’s an ideal organization to get emergency departments and urgent care clinics all working on the same page. Most notably, the startup helped the Ontario Telemedicine Network and OntarioMD set up their virtual screening clinic, equipped with 300 physicians on-schedule, with hundreds more joining in the coming weeks.
Sanitizing mobile devices with the power of light
According to the University of Arizona, smartphones carry 10 times more bacteria than toilet seats. Luckily, startup CleanSlate UV has invented a machine that kills 99.9 percent of infectious bacteria on mobile devices using UV light. It’s even more useful for hospital staff looking to clean stethoscopes, badges and other gadgets that come in contact with countless viruses and bacteria every day. UV light has been proven to be effective against previous strains of coronavirus, though, it cannot be used on the body as it can damage cells as much as bacteria.
Bringing doctors to you
The best ways to stop the proliferation of disease is to take all the recommended precautions, self-quarantine and socially distance oneself when necessary. Of course, sick people — whether they have COVID-19 or not — still need to see doctors when things get rough. Every day, telemedicine is becoming increasingly adept at addressing this issue. Originally conceived to serve patients in rural communities, the tech has the potential to turn the table on current and future pandemics.
Toronto-based startup Maple incorporates user-friendly features already active in popular innovations like online banking and digital ride-hailing. For a small fee, users are connected within minutes to a doctor for diagnosis via e-chat or video conference. And to further address the COVID-19 outbreak, Maple has partnered with Shoppers Drug Mart, launching a virtual care service to relieve burdened clinics and emergency rooms. Where virtual care is not funded by provincial governments, Shoppers Drug Mart will fund online physician consults at no cost to patients, providing access to care while following public health guidelines.
Another telemedicine company, MediSeen, is offering its software free for all physicians. Compliant with Canadian government regulations, MediSeen’s platform is accessible through mobile devices and allows doctors to share information, coach other healthcare workers, and foster relationships with colleagues across the country.
Working for wellness
People of all stripes are feeling the stress of this crisis: friends and family are getting sick, jobs are being lost and many businesses don’t know where to turn. All the more reason for people to take care of themselves physically and mentally. Headquartered in Toronto, MindBeacon is a startup that delivers proven mental therapies to its clients via online platforms. And the company has created a special COVID-19 support service for those looking for help — advice, assessments, public health updates and more.
Shielding patients with stronger screening
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the lack of early COVID-19 screenings in the United States and Italy has manifested in undue calamity. Canadian health data company Memotext has released a digital screening tool, RapidScreen, that provides instant assessments and is built for rapid triage and recommendations to the public.
Editor’s note: this article is being updated on a regular basis. Its last update was April 2, 2020.
For more information on how MaRS-supported startups are helping in response to the pandemic, visit our COVID-19 directory.