Advances in technology and innovation are driving much-needed disruption in health care
Charmaine Dean
Research & International
University of Waterloo

At the University of Waterloo, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers and startups are sharing space that was once reserved for medical schools. Because of their work, quantum sensors are improving cancer treatment, health informatics are prioritizing patient care, computational models are predicting better surgical outcomes, and deep scientific research is having an immediate impact in the marketplace.

This transformational era of new solutions in healthcare represents an incredible opportunity for Canada to both improve its health-care system and to lead the world in the burgeoning but fast-growing multi-billion-dollar industry of health technology.

With an aging demographic and escalating costs, advancements in this field will be ever more critical. The University of Waterloo believes we have an obligation to rise to this challenge, and a responsibility to lead. Here are four key ways we are helping and encouraging young, innovative minds to create some of the world’s best medical technology.

Working across fields, and industries

Anita Layton, Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematical Biology and Medicine worked with physiologists and clinicians to develop the world’s first computational model of a human kidney to test and improve treatment.

Our view of 21st-century education requires continued interaction between industry, research and education to foster innovation. Collaboration between formerly isolated academic disciplines means new opportunities for data science, engineering and technologies to shape the health and medicine ecosystem.

At the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology, and our world-class multi-scale manufacturing lab, for example, researchers working across disciplines with partners such as the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and Sanofi, a world leader in the vaccine industry, are ensuring our discoveries are aimed at solving complex and often immediate problems.

Solutions to our most pressing problems requires the most innovative people and integration of a wide variety of perspectives. That means supporting people who not only think outside the box, but see the box in entirely different ways.

Driving economic impact

Entrepreneurship can play a significant role in this transformation. Young, bright people with great ideas are moving into startups and small firms to shape the future of healthcare and medicine. Innovators who take advantage of advancements such as sensors, 3D printers, and wearable technologies alone are already experiencing huge boosts in revenue with the medical device market already nearing $300-billion a year in revenue.

At Waterloo’s own start-up incubator, Velocity, we are seeing increased economic and business opportunities in therapeutics and drugs, medical devices, diagnostics, and synthetic biology.

Curiato Inc. is creating smart healthcare solutions to tackle the “silent epidemic” of life-threatening pressure injuries. Qidni Labs is building an artificial kidney with the hope of dramatically improving survival rates for patients with kidney failure. And Penta Medical is developing a data-driven medical device that treats injuries while you wear it.

These are the kind of quick conversion of deep science to commercial applications that will have a profound impact on the longevity, health, and quality of life of Canadians and others around the world.

Aligning research with global challenges

Technology is augmenting every aspect of our lives. Advancements in human-machine interaction are leading to a world in which we work with robots to do everything from build and drive our cars to diagnose illness. Innovations in next-generation computing are allowing big data to access our own personal health plans while also raising big questions about the nature of individual privacy. And human activity has created a global climate crisis that requires collective and immediate action.

Curiato Inc., founded by Waterloo students in science and engineering, has created a smart bedsheet with the capacity to monitor and report on patient skin data, helping to detect pressure wounds and other issues.

Our researchers are securing the future for humankind by leveraging our research strengths in technology and the social, economic, biological and environmental determinants of health.

Alexander Wong, a professor in the Faculty of Engineering, and his team, have developed a new imaging device that uses artificial intelligence and deep-tissue scans of our bodies that can detect skin cancer earlier than traditional methods – without the need of biopsies.

Kerstin Dautenhahn, the Canada 150 Research Chair in Intelligent Robotics, is one of the founders of the field of social robotics. Her research centres on advancing our understanding of fundamental principles of human-robotic interaction. Her accomplishments are extensive and inspiring, including breaking new ground with robot-assisted therapy for children with autism.

At the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy and School of Optometry and Vision Science – respectively, the first and only schools of their kind in Canada – students are integrating foundational knowledge in the spheres of biomedicine and vision science to forge entirely new paths in the health-care sector.

And at the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging, world-class academics in medicine, technology and the arts are working together to connect research to the real world – to bring together our best minds in an effort to change the way we age in Canada. While the impact of research can sometimes take decades to realize, the RIA’s unique approach enables their advancements to be applied in real time, in real-life settings.

Developing talent for the future

This movement towards entrepreneurship and medical technologies is carrying the practice of health care into a new whole new world – along with it, the need for a new kind of personalized care, and a new kind of medical practitioner.

Alexander Wong, Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence and Medical Imaging, and his team, co-founded Elucid Labs to commercialize their AI-driven deep tissue scanning device.

Primary care will change significantly with robotics and remote surgeries already becoming a part of today’s health-care systems. In the not-so-distant future, these and other disruptive technologies will continue to advance, shape and transform personal and systemic health care.

Much as we have done in the area of making artificial intelligence accessible and scalable, the University of Waterloo is helping Canada carve out significant space in the innovation and entrepreneurship market of medical devices and health technology, by developing the talent for the future – the innovators and masters of these awe-inspiring technologies.

Practitioners helping to reimagine health with technology will expand services, greatly personalize our level of care, and provide an aging population with the service they expect at a cost we can afford if only we decide that these areas of focus are a priority. So, while Canadians have not traditionally associated engineers or mathematicians with physicians, chances are the hospitals of the future – and just about everything in them – are going to be designed by them.

It takes an ecosystem of stakeholders to infuse innovation into health systems. From engineers developing biomedical devices, mathematicians advancing biostatistics, social scientists examining global health policies and ocular scientists inventing new diagnoses and treatments, the University of Waterloo is uniting these critical sectors to transform the way we live and care for one another.