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How Canadian startups are tackling the COVID-19 crisis

While the outbreak continues to spread around the world, experts in Canada are working to contain the virus

How Canadian startups are tackling the COVID-19 crisis

While the outbreak continues to spread around the world, experts in Canada are working to contain the virus


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.

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.

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 company is set to ramp up production of its life-saving ventilators, with manufacturing starting as early as this week. The number of machines required has not been finalized (estimates suggest between 1,000 to 5,000 ventilators need to be added to Canada’s existing 5,000). Thornhill Medical is prepared to partner with manufacturers and sub-contractors, no matter the demand.

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.

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, 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 latest 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. 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. And then there’s also  CoHealth, a company with an app that helps create, share and measure data among health workers.

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.

Every day, MaRS-supported health startups are helping people the world over live longer and healthier lives. Learn more about them.