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The Path to Nurturing the Canadian Health Sciences Ecosystem With MaRS Discovery District

Published on
August 16, 2022

If you’ve been keeping your finger on the pulse of Canadian startup culture, then you’ve probably heard of MaRS Discovery District. On LinkedIn, MaRS describes itself as “the world's largest urban innovation hub in Toronto that supports startups in the health, cleantech, fintech, and enterprise sectors.” The success of this hub can be attributed to many things but one of those key factors is the people within the organization. 

In the fourth installment of our Making Impact Podcast series, ODAIA’s co-founder, Helen Kontozopoulos met with Amol Deshpande, Senior Director of Ecosystem Health Sciences at MaRS Discovery District. Together, they discuss blockers within the Canadian healthcare startup ecosystem and how they can be overcome with national strategy.

The Shift In The Clinical Ecosystem 

Before taking on his role at MaRS, Amol worked for two and a half decades as an academic clinician in Toronto. One of his main areas of focus was chronic pain management through non-interventional and interventional methods. While working within the clinical ecosystem he began to sense a shift in the way technology was beginning to be adopted. 

Notoriously, the healthcare industry struggles to adopt innovations as it typically moves slowly with an emphasis on risk mitigation. As Amol puts it, “Canada is a very complex system. There are a lot of moving parts. And I think from the outside that's not always evident to entrepreneurs and ventures as they try and bring their technologies through the system.” 

With his healthcare background, Amol realized he would be able to bring a nuanced understanding of how well an idea would be received by the health ecosystem. “Three months ago an opportunity opened up to be part of MaRS, so I jumped in with two feet to help some of the ventures and founders [incubated there] to make the healthcare system a better environment.” This is how he found himself at MaRS, aiding ventures and bringing ideas to the forefront to better nurture the Canadian health sciences ecosystem. 

Technological Adoption In The Healthcare Industry Is Hard But Not Impossible

One of the challenges that Amol sees ventures facing is the eagerness to place products into the healthcare workflow without considering the fit of it. “Often when you put [technology] into the ecosystem if you don't do it appropriately, what you end up doing is just wasting a lot of time and energy, and creating incredibly frustrated clinicians who don't want to use that technology anymore.” 

An example of this challenge is the implementation of the electronic medical record system. The idea behind EMR is to create better patient care and facilitate better workflow for physicians. However, the reality is that up until five years ago, the organizational capabilities of the healthcare system didn’t allow for easy integration. “If you don't understand what the workflow is and you just build a tool and throw it into the system, it takes a long time for that to sort of permeate through the ecosystem before you get the benefits,” Amol says. 

An area that works to integrate itself better is biotechnology, though it has its own pros and cons for assimilating into the healthcare ecosystem. Often it starts at the end by looking for unmet needs, asking the question of ‘what’s the technology that’ll solve that pain point?’ Unfortunately, “if you don't understand the problem in a very nuanced way, You'll usually realize a bit late that what you've built doesn't really match what's needed.” Patients don’t live in a repository, if a product helps one person in the journey it doesn’t mean it will help others. “We need to manage the obstacles of technology to ensure adoption.” 

Regionalism Doesn’t Allow Us to Tap Into Canadian Talent

The big vision for Amol lies within a national strategy around healthcare innovation to prevent resource fragmentation. In Canada, a blocker to innovation stems from regionalism. An example of this is that 15 out of 24 Canadian universities have dedicated biotech programs, and 14 of them are within a four-hour drive of MaRS yet only one or two are the focus of recruitment by Canadian companies. “One of the biggest issues in biotech is access to talent and skills. Why aren't we plugging in as a region to all of these, rather than just serendipitously waiting for it to happen?” 

Though talent is a silo that can be broken down quickly and Canada produces phenomenal talent, it is having trouble retaining that talent. Without a dense ecosystem, it’s harder to keep the A players when they have nowhere to turn to if the first company they work for doesn’t pan out. Division doesn’t help the cause either but “national strategy is a process and people are willing to get there.” 

So what would Amol suggest to mitigate these talent challenges? His answer: “I think we need to change the game and stop competing with one another and figure out how Canada can play on the global stage in anything health innovation.” 

Making Impact

The future Amol believes in is one of collaboration and bringing resources to different jurisdictions that need them. “In order to onboard technology, validate it, prove it, there needs to be a national strategy to say here’s how we’re going to pave the path for companies.” As the future of the healthcare ecosystem is evolving and new technologies are being adopted, the unified vision for Canada that Amol sees could be part of a better way forward. Likewise, at MaRS, people like Amol are striving to make the world a better place by providing ventures with “expert advice, and [connecting] them to capital, talent, and markets to accelerate their growth and scale up their impact.” 

This is the fourth installment of ODAIA’s Making Impact Podcast series, where we will go on to interview other thought leaders who are using cutting-edge technology to innovate in the life sciences. Listen to our previous episode with Priti Chawla from Obesity Matters where Helen Kontozopoulos and Priti Chawla discuss the roadblocks for those who struggle with weight loss issues and overcoming them by educating stakeholders.