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Innovation machine: How one U of T researcher is having an outsized impact on the health startup space

Professor Paul Santerre (centre) has filed for more than 60 patents, sits on the boards of three startups that have emerged from his lab and is advising 41 others though U of T's Health Innovation Hub accelerator (photo by Chris Sorensen)

Paul Santerre recently flew to Boston to help launch a cerebral catheter that incorporates an anti-clotting polymer additive created by Interface Biologics, the company he co-founded nearly two decades ago based on his University of Toronto lab work.

It was the sort of business trip that should be routine for the U of T biomaterials professor, given that Interface, by his count, has previously made five such announcements. 

But that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of one of the university’s most prolific entrepreneurs.

“For Interface Biologics to be entering the neural area is big,” says Santerre, who has appointments in U of T’s Faculty of Dentistry and the Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering. “A lot of imaging tools are starting to rely on catheter technologies to peer into spots where they can’t get the resolution they need with an MRI.

“This is an innovative product in an area that’s going to be a game-changer. It sets the stage for the next phase of growth for this local company of ours.”

The extra-ventricular catheter drain in question is designed by Knoxville, Tenn.-based startup Arkis Biosciences. Called CerebroFlo, the catheter will employ Interface’s Endexo technology, which a press release states “has been proven to be highly effective for reducing catheter occlusions and thrombosis,” including in a recent study of 656 patients at the Ottawa Hospital.

Endexo grew out of Santerre’s lab research in the 1990s. It’s a polymer additive that essentially tricks the body to ignoring its presence, preventing the formation of blood clots that can break off and lodge in blood vessels. It’s already being used in everything from flexible PICC catheters to dialysis machine membranes – basically anywhere that patients’ blood and medical instruments come into contact for extended periods. 
 
The technology also helps reduce the chance of infection, since blood clots tend to be a breeding ground for bacteria – a feature Santerre says is critical for neurological applications.
 
“You can imagine what happens if you get a bug crawling up those catheter lines into the brain,” he says. “It’s over, very fast.”

The continued success of Interface is a testament both to Santerre’s research prowess and his relentless drive to move such discoveries out of the lab into the commercial realm where they can achieve maximum impact. 

Santerre, who recently won an Ontario Professional Engineers Award for entrepreneurship and a Governor General’s Innovation Award, sits on the board of three different startups that grew out of his lab. In addition to Interface, they include Polumiros, which makes a polymer filler that can be used to cosmetically repair patients’ breasts following a lumpectomy, and an emerging startup built around a ceramic-based “bone tape” that could change the way facial fractures are repaired.

He’s also working on a biodegradable cardiac patch that coaxes damaged cardiac tissues to regenerate themselves. 

Other research interests include devising new restorative dental materials, drug delivery platforms and biomaterials for tissue engineering.

In all, U of T’s Innovations and Partnerships Office says Santerre has filed for 57 patents over the years, although it cautions its records aren’t exhaustive. Santerre, for his part, says he lost count somewhere after his 60th patent filing. 

Joseph Ferenbok is the director of U of T's translational research program and co-director of the H2i accelerator (photo by Chris Sorensen)

Santerre’s zeal for commercializing innovation goes beyond his own lab. He’s also a driving force behind U of T’s Health Innovation Hub (H2i) incubator, one of several entrepreneurship hubs spread across U of T’s three Toronto-area campuses.

“His goal is to get 100 companies started that are successful in their own right to help with our ecosystem,” says Joseph Ferenbok, who is the director of U of T’s translational research program in the Faculty of Medicine and co-directs H2i with Santerre. 

“He wants to help students, trainees and researchers avoid some of the pitfalls that he experienced.”

To that end, Santerre is currently acting as an adviser to no fewer than 41 different H2i startups.

Some of those budding entrepreneurs participated in a recent H2i pitch event. Their ideas ranged from an expandable trocar (the access tunnels used to insert minimal invasive surgical tools) to better-fitting radiation shields for physicians.

Other startups that have worked with H2i include: Trexo Robotics, which makes a child-sized exoskeleton for children who are unable to walk; WinterLight Labs, which uses AI to track cognitive impairment through speech; and SensOR, which has developed a force-sensing technology to aid surgeons using minimally invasive techniques.

Paul Santerre, far right, and Richard Hegele, the Faculty of Medicine's vice-dean of research and innovation (centre), with the winners of a recent H2i pitch competition (photo by Chris Sorensen)

While medical innovations are usually thought of in terms of improving patient outcomes, Santerre says a big opportunity exists for entrepreneurs who can find ways to deliver care more efficiently in an age of ballooning health costs.

He points, as an example, to Interface’s work with Fresenius Medical Care, the world’s largest provider of dialysis products and services. Santerre says each dialysis procedure currently requires patients to be administered expensive anticoagulant drugs – a cost that could be significantly reduced with addition of Endexo.

“There are millions of patients that undergo regular dialysis daily in North America and around the world,” he notes, adding that all those dosages of anticoagulants quickly add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. 

“You can see why they’re very excited about this technology in terms of cost to health care.”

Santerre credits his training as an engineer for developing his nose for efficiency. While many of his research counterparts in the 1990s were focused on costly biological anti-clotting agents that suffered from stability and shelf-life issues, Santerre says he gravitated to the potential of comparatively cheap and stable polymers. 

Then, seemingly overnight, spiralling health costs became a front-page story, particularly in the United States. “That was the a-ha moment that very few people were paying attention to – I mean, to be honest, I wasn’t paying attention to it either in 1990 when I started,” Santerre says.

Maybe not, but Santerre was better prepared than most to take advantage of the coming shift in priorities – and he jumped at the opportunity. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. This is going to be significant,’ because the need to drive health-care costs down is an imperative to saving the system,” he says.

“I always say, ‘Luck is being ready when the right time happens.’ And we were ready when the right time happened.”

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