Aspiring entrepreneurs combine artificial intelligence and medicine at U of T

“We want to help get these creative ideas for improving health care off the ground”

Imagine you’re one of the 50,000 people in Ontario addicted to opioids. You have a panic attack in the middle of the night. You may live in a remote area with little access to counselling services — but even if you have regular access to a therapist, no one’s around at that moment to talk you through it.

Instead of reaching for pills, though, you turn to the support of your “pocket counsellor,” right on your smartphone. This virtual counsellor will have an actual conversation with you — asking questions, and “listening” to your responses.

[quote (class="additional class" | author="Raad Yameen")]“It asks intelligent questions depending on your answers just as any human would do in a real conversation”[/quote]“It asks intelligent questions depending on your answers just as any human would do in a real conversation,” says Dr. Raad Yameen, a recent medical school graduate and master’s student in the Faculty of Medicine’s new Translational Research Program. Yameen is one of three U of T students in medicine and engineering working on the artificial intelligence counselling app through their startup dubbed Project MIToc. By recognizing “change talk” — any expression like “I really need to,” “I should,” “I have to do something” — the app can pick up on that and even remind you of some of the reasons you’d given in the past for wanting to stop using.

Yameen and his team now have $5,000 to help develop their idea further. They were one of a selected group of young innovators gathered at U of T this week to pitch their ideas as part of the HealthEDGE initiative, led by U of T-based accelerators in medicine, engineering and computer science. With a panel of judges including entrepreneurs and industry leaders in health — and six fellowships of $5,000 each for the top ideas — it was akin to a “Dragons’ Den” competition for health care. 

“We want to help get these creative ideas for improving health care off the ground,” says Professor Joseph Ferenbok, co-director of the Health Innovation Hub (H2i), the Faculty of Medicine’s accelerator. “We started the year-long initiative with an open call for people to submit challenges, ingenuity gaps, or ‘bugs’ in the health care system. Then we invited students and other innovators to find solutions.” 

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Yameen, along with Project MIToc co-founders — software engineers and computer engineering master’s students Didier Landry and Dustin Kut Moy Cheung — hope their theory-driven, evidence-based and patient-centric technology will lead to better support for addicts, and cost-savings to the health system. 

Other winning ideas included a tool for the early detection of diabetes-related vision loss dubbed “iProbe,” which allows psychiatrists to monitor patients with schizophrenia for worsening symptoms based on their social media and other online communications; a personalized drug profiling technology for patients with cystic fibrosis and other conditions serving as a personalized “clinical trial in a dish”; a mobile video health program that would connect rural youth with mental-health support; and a robotic rehabilitative exoskeleton for kids with cerebral palsy. The iProbe project also won the community choice award.

With iSchool entrepreneurship instructor and HealthEDGE 2016 coordinator Adriana Ieraci moderating the event, the judges challenged each presenter with questions on feasibility, privacy concerns, pricing and competitors. Leading up to the event, mentors from H2i, The Entrepreneurship Hatchery and the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab (DCSIL) coached the teams and helped them refine their pitches. 

But the work doesn’t end here. A central goal of the HealthEDGE initiative is to help turn these ideas into reality. With the fellowship money, along with a network of contacts and potential backers through community, health care and industry partners — including the University Health Network, Rouge Valley Health System Foundation, Johnson & Johnson Innovation (JLABS), Autodesk and IBM — the winning innovators are given resources to put their smart solutions to work. They’ll be presenting their proofs of concept at a HealthEDGE demo day in the fall.

Winning Projects:

ReX: a robotic exoskeleton suit to help children with cerebral palsy learn to walk
VideoHealth: a new mobile way to connect rural youth with little access to mental health care to urban mental health providers, including psychiatrists using asynchronous video communication. 
Project MIToc: a mobile solution for motivational counseling and commitment enhancement for people suffering from opioid addiction. 
XVIVOS Biosciences:  a high-throughput, personalized drug profiling technology for patients with certain rare & neglected diseases
Project Nash: a modular tool that allows psychiatrists to collect feedback from members of a patient's support network, as well as automatically analyze patient's audio logs and social media for inconsistencies that could be a warning sign of relapse
iProbe: a sensing device for pre-symptomatic ocular disease detection


Professor Paul Santerre, co-director, Health Innovation Hub
Andris Lauris, mentor-in-residence, Health Innovation Hub
Merry Wang, senior research Scientist, Autodesk
Gail Garland, president and CEO, Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization (OBio)
Jonathan Rezek, business development, IBM Canada 
Kendra Delicaet, managing director, OpenLab, TGH
Katherine Schwenger, co-chair, Institute of Medical Science Students Association (IMSSA)

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