Ontario: The global hub for 'science driven' wearable tech startups?

Last week I was part of a panel discussion in Toronto, Canada. Hosted by MaRS and Ontario Genomics Institute (OGI), the topic was Big Data and Personalized Medicine. The event was part of the MaRS Global Leadership series. MaRS is a place where science, technology and social entrepreneurs come together and get the help they need, where new conversations take place, and innovation is actively nurtured. OGI is a private, not-for-profit corporation focused on using world-class research to create strategic genomics resources and accelerate Ontario’s development of a globally-competitive life sciences sector.

Rhonda Tannenbaum, VP of Business Development at Ontario Genomics Institute introducing the event

Rhonda Tannenbaum, VP of Business Development at Ontario Genomics Institute introducing the event

The other two panellists had amazing backgrounds. Phyllis Frosst, Senior Policy Fellow at the Personalised Medicine Coalition, and Fiona Stewart, practices at Belfast City Hospital, specialises in Clinical Genetics & also is part of the UK Genetic testing network. I learnt so much from spending time with them (as did the audience).


I shared my thoughts on trends in Digital Health and what it means from a data perspective. Such as the forthcoming explosion of data generated by our bodies 24/7 but now being captured by sensors, apps and genetic tests. How will it best be shared? How will it be governed? Do we need to rethink data privacy & security in the 21st century? How can patients be given real-time dynamic consent when it comes to toggling levels of access to their health data? How can these data support personalised medicine or will they just be meaningless datasets in 5 years time? One of the last questions from the audience was whether these trends in technology & data will lead to Canada's population being served in the future by doctors based in other countries. Healthcare without borders may well be one of the options employed in order to cope with rising costs.

Participating in the event reminded of the need for more 'science driven' health tech startups. In the world of health & social care, which is used to evidence based medicine, I believe those startups which are based upon good science, have the greatest chances of long term success & prosperity.

Science driven wearable tech startups

Whilst I was in Toronto, I decided to grab some time with a number of wearable tech startups that are based out there. After meeting them, I was truly impressed by their passion, 'science driven' approach, and their humility. None of the arrogance and false superiority displayed by many startups I've met in other places.

I met with Mike Lovas from PUSH. They are working on the first fitness tracking device that measures strength. When performing your bench press, squats, or deadlift in the gym, the device promises to capture sets, reps, force output, power, and velocity. The goal of PUSH is not to replace the human trainer/coach, but to support the trainer. I started imagining the possibilities of combining PUSH with other wearable tech. For example, what if during your squats, PUSH records your strength, your Lumoback would measure your posture, and smart socks from Sensoria would measure if your feet are moving in the wrong direction. Combine all of the resulting data, and provide real-time feedback via earphones to the person performing the exercise. Not only does this feedback loop optimise your workout, but you could prevent injuries due to poor technique. Wouldn't that be awesome? You can hear more about PUSH in the video.

Mike Lovas, Chief Design Officer, co-founder at PUSH 

Next I met with, Ashley Beattie from Kiwi Wearable Technologies. They are currently working on the kiwi move, which is is an internet-enabled motion sensing device and can be used to track your activity, automate your home and even secure your valuables. We didn't have much time for our meeting, so didn't get a chance to view their device. However, I was enthralled by the conversation with Ashley and the vision for Kiwi. I remember that he told me, "the dominant wearable tech company of the future wll be a platform company, having multiple apps, with one device, creating a 'pivot chart' for your sensor data." Definitely a company to keep an eye on. You can hear more about Kiwi in the video.

Ashley Beattie, co-founder, Kiwi Wearables 

Running around Toronto, I popped into the offices of Interaxon, and caught up with Trevor Coleman. In addition to being the person that persuaded me to start using Twitter back in early 2012, when I met him at Wisdom 2.0 in Silicon Valley, he's working on MUSE, their new brain sensing headband. I admire how they want people to use the technology to actually connect to themselves. Trevor possesses unique insights into the merging of wisdom & technology. I'm excited to see reactions from consumers once the product starts shipping in 2014. Hear more from Trevor in the video.

Trevor Coleman, Chief Product Officer, Interaxon

Finally, I got a chance to meet the super busy Saul Colt, principal at Kinetic Cafe and also the head of the new Fresh Startups program. Saul is a pioneer who is challenging the status quo when it comes to our beliefs regarding accelerating and incubating health tech startups. Their differentiator is their partnership with Freshii, a health food restaurant chain looking to shake up fast food while keeping meals healthy. You must watch the short video of Saul explaining why he started the Fresh Startups program. 

Saul Colt, Founder, Fresh Startups 

I meet a lot of startups, in different parts of the world, but in Toronto, something seemed to make them different. Their commitment to creating 'science driven' wearable technology in the world of fitness & health. I see so many startups in this area developing a product simply because it's cool or sexy, but based on little or no science. What seems to give Toronto's wearable tech startups an edge over other parts of the world can be found by driving 115km away from Toronto, to the University of Waterloo. "Every Canadian in a successful startup seems to be from the University of Waterloo", remarked Mike Lovas.

According to Startup Genome’s Startup Ecosystem Report 2013, three Canadian cities rank among the top 20 most active startup scenes in the world. Toronto, Vancouver & Waterloo. I'm seriously impressed that Waterloo is ranked 16th, just behind Berlin. Why am I impressed? The population of Waterloo is just 124,600! I didn't get a chance to meet Airo Health, and Thalmic Labs, two more wearable tech startups, who are based near Waterloo.

UK Independence Party advert

UK Independence Party advert

From a cultural perspective, whilst the UK Independence Party is trying to change influence policy to limit immigration, Toronto in particular seems to be welcoming immigrants with open arms. Nearly 50% of Toronto's population is foreign born. That's critical when it comes to attracting global talent.

Poster in downtown Toronto welcoming new immigrants

Poster in downtown Toronto welcoming new immigrants

My experiences in Toronto have left me enlightened and inspired. My last thoughts as I headed back to London, were that if current trends continue, the province of Ontario (which includes Toronto and Waterloo) may well become the global hub for 'science driven' wearable tech startups.

[Disclosure: I have no commercial ties with the companies mentioned in this post]