A robotic exoskeleton for children with physical disabilities; an electronic “smart skin” that helps surgeons avoid errors; a system for earlier cancer detection — these are just a few of the U of T Engineering innovations featured at last Thursday’s Hatchery Demo Day.
A total of 14 student teams pitched their business ideas to a panel of expert judges as part of the Dragons’ Den-style event, hosted annually by The Entrepreneurship Hatchery, a startup accelerator at U of T Engineering. Competitors were vying for a share of $32,500 in seed funding and the attention of potential investors.
“Thank you to all of the teams for your energy, your passion, and for being hungry,” said Joseph Orozco, executive director of The Entrepreneurship Hatchery in his opening remarks. “You are the future.”
Demo Day is the culmination of The Hatchery’s intensive summer program, where student teams work with experienced mentors — including executives, lawyers, medical professionals and engineers — to develop their business ideas and competencies. They receive detailed feedback and guidance on everything from patent applications and incorporation to honing their pitches and building prototypes, which they create using 3D printers and other fabrication resources provided by The Hatchery.
The seed funding at stake at Demo Day includes a grand prize of $20,000 and a runner-up prize of $10,000, donated by alumnus Anthony Lacavera (CompE 9T7), founder and chairman of Globalive Holdings and former CEO of WIND Mobile. An additional $2,500 Orozco prize is provided through funds raised by the students themselves.
“The University of Toronto was recently named the top University in North America for research-based startups, and the presentations we have seen tonight are a testament to that position,” said Cristina Amon, dean of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. “We are very proud to celebrate the creativity, talent and hard work of these emerging entrepreneurs.”
This year’s winners were:
$20,000 Lacavera Prize: BOMBERobotics (now Trexo Robotics) — Exoskeletons for physiotherapy
Manmeet Maggu was a mechatronics engineering student at another university when he learned that his nephew had cerebral palsy (CP). “I thought, as an engineer, what am I doing if I’m not trying to help people?” he says.
Maggu and his friend Rahul Udasi (MIE MEng candidate) began investigating ways that robotic exoskeletons could be used in physiotherapy for children with CP and other physical disabilities. They learned that although some robotic therapies exist, the exoskeletons typically cost a whopping $500,000, and are found in only a handful of clinics worldwide.
Maggu and Udasi set about building a smaller robotic exoskeleton, dubbed Trexo, that would be more portable and less costly and provide the same benefits as larger systems. They also designed Trexo to be modular so that it can adjust and grow with the child. By combining innovations in many parts of the system — from redesigned mechanical components to new software — they were able to reduce the cost of the system by a factor of 10. In July 2016 they flew to India to test Trexo with Maggu’s nephew and received very positive feedback.
“We are really fortunate to be part of the Hatchery,” says Manmeet. “We had access to amazing resources and amazing mentors.” The team plans to use the prize money to pursue regulatory approval from Health Canada. Their initial plan is to target the 120,000 physiotherapy clinics across North America. They also believe some families will want to purchase the device for themselves.
“Parents want to try everything, and they want the best technology available,” says Maggu. “We’re not saying robots will replace people, but our exoskeleton could help physiotherapists provide better care.”
BOMBERobotics also received support from U of T’s Health Innovation Hub (H2i) and from the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab (DCSIL). Read more about the team on the Faculty of Medicine website.
$10,000 Lacavera Prize: SensOR — Force-feedback for safer surgery
Approximately two-thirds of modern general surgeries use minimally invasive techniques, with smaller incisions and longer instruments, to reduce trauma and accelerate healing time. But remotely operated or robotic tools make it harder for a surgeon to feel the response of the tissues they are operating on. This can increase the chance of causing additional injury: up to 12 per cent of medical errors are caused by inappropriate application of force during surgery.
SensOR has a solution: a thin film that easily wraps around any surgical instrument and translates physical force into electrical signals. The force-feedback data is wirelessly transmitted to a receiver and a visual display, making it easy to see how much force is being applied. These visual cues can be integrated into the monitors that surgeons already use to see inside the body.
SensOR’s CEO Robert Brooks (MIE PhD 1T5) credits the team’s Hatchery mentors with helping them to articulate their vision. “We had this wonderful technology, and we knew exactly what we were doing, but the only people who understood it were surgeons,” he says. “Our mentors were absolutely instrumental in helping us nail down exactly what our value proposition was so that we could connect with investors.”
SensOR’s initial market will be surgical training programs. Although some force-feedback simulation systems exist already, SensOR is the only one that follows student all the way from simulation into surgery and allows students to train using the same tools they will be using in practice. Once the product is approved by Health Canada, the team hopes to start using it in real surgeries. “The ultimate goal is to enable new surgical procedures that are not possible today,” says Brooks.
$2,500 Orozco Prize: Enrich Biosciences — Earlier cancer detection
Enrich Bioscience formed around a technology that could detect cancer earlier using a fast, simple and non-invasive diagnostic test. It was founded by Ricardo Harripaul, a PhD student in the Faculty of Medicine, and Tarang Khare, who completed his PhD in molecular genetics and is now pursuing a part-time MBA at the Rotman School of Management.
All human DNA is tagged with small molecules called methyl groups, which attach to the DNA strand. The pattern of these molecules, known as the methylation profile, varies from cell to cell, and can act as a kind of molecular fingerprint. Each type of cancer has a distinct methylation profile. By extracting DNA and examining the methylation profile, the team can identify which cells are cancerous and which are not, as well as the type of cancer.
Because the test is cell-based, it is non-invasive and can be done using a simple blood sample. It can also detect cancer earlier. “For existing methods, you have to be showing symptoms or be in a high-risk group before you would be prescribed a test,” says Khare. “In our scenario, we don’t need any symptoms or theoretical indicators. We can take a blood sample and say whether a cancerous cell is present or not.”
The team aims to use existing libraries of tissue samples from cancer patients, such as the Alberta Cancer Research Biobank, to train their computer algorithms to recognize the DNA methylation profile of various cancer cell types. After that, simply comparing a patient’s DNA methylation profile to the database should be able to tell them not only whether the patient has cancer, but also which organ is likely to be affected.
“Our Hatchery mentors have done so much for us,” says Harripaul. “We are scientists and didn’t know much about business. They spent a lot of time teaching us how to present to people who aren’t scientists.” The team has applied for a provisional patent on their technology and aims to start the validation experiments next year.