Dr. Doug Dittmer steps into an old, empty building on the grounds of Freeport Health Centre as he talks about a new incubator for start-ups working on medical-related technology.
Dittmer wants the incubator to be established at Freeport, and he’s pitching the idea to William Charnetski, the Ministry of Health’s chief innovation strategist. Charnetski oversees a $20-million fund the province established to spur innovation in the health-care system.
The two men walk through heritage building, a former residence for student nurses built more than 100 years ago when Freeport was a tuberculosis sanatorium. After the invention of antibiotics, tuberculosis treatment changed, and Freeport focussed on chronic and long-term care, rehabilitation and mental illness.
That focus makes Freeport, a campus of Grand River Hospital, an ideal place to test new technologies in a hospital setting, said Dittmer, a doctor at Grand River.
Acute-care hospitals with busy emergency wards and intensive-care units are no place for new technologies that have not been thoroughly tested and tweaked in quieter environments such as Freeport, Dittmer said.
“Here at Freeport we have the space and a partnership with (the University of Waterloo) to build a centre where people can come and be embedded in a hospital where they can test their devices on real people,” Dittmer said.
Freeport has close to 200 beds, making it the second largest hospital in the Waterloo-Wellington Local Health Integration Network.
“We can try things here in a safer environment, and roll it out to the rest of the hospital and to our sister hospitals,” Dittmer said.
“It gives you a chance to test things without putting lives at stake in an emergency room or intensive care unit,” he said.
The former nurses’ residence has about 9,000 square feet of space on two floors. Grand River Hospital is applying for grants to transform the building into a start-up incubator. UW and Communitech already support the idea, and Dittmer hopes St. Mary’s General Hospital and Cambridge Memorial Hospital will as well.
“Each of the hospitals is unique, but together we are very strong, we are close to 1,000 beds and we will rival anything else in the province,” Dittmer said.
Freeport, UW and Communitech organized a medical technology conference that was held Wednesday at the Freeport campus on King Street East. It included presentations from medical related start-ups, hospitals, BlackBerry and Communitech, the not-for-profit organization that was founded in 1997 to help tech companies start, grow and succeed.
About 20 per cent of the start-ups in the Communitech Hub in downtown Kitchener are working on health-care technology, said Iain Klugman, Communitech’s chief executive officer.
Shirley Fenton, business development director for the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology at UW, said the medical technology hub is a natural for this region.
“What we don’t realize is that Waterloo Region is already a centre for medical technology,” Fenton said in an interview. “From biosensors, biopharmaceuticals, data analytics, medical imaging, all sorts of different areas.”
UW, Wilfrid Laurier University, Conestoga College, the Waterloo-Wellington Local Health Integration Network, Accelerator Centre and Communitech all support the idea of a medical technology incubator, she said.
“How can we bring our academic researchers and clinicians closer together to innovate? Because we know if we bring people together it will happen,” Fenton said.
Health-care related technology has the potential to make a powerful and positive economic impact, Charnetski said in his presentation at the conference.
“I am convinced we are going to create a health-technology ecosystem that creates the jobs that our kids will want to have,” he said.
The ministry’s innovation fund is “locked and loaded,” Charnetski said. The government will accept funding proposals until July 4, he said.