Rehabilitation makes a huge impact on the lives of people living with the effects of disability, illness and aging. The best outcome is to prevent the need for rehabilitation in the first place, however, once an individual requires rehabilitation that process could include aspects like restoration, enhanced participation and independent living. Drilling down even further, one of the areas of rehabilitation is prosthetics, like neuroprosthetics for those with spinal cord injuries.
Neuroprosthetics is an excellent example of a space of innovation that is having a direct impact on patients and their quality of life. Though our guest did not start his career in life science, his engineering background spans power systems, robotics, and aerospace, he took advantage of an opportunity that came up to work in developing technologies for people with disabilities. And he’s been on that path ever since having seen the difference his work was having on patients’ lives.
In this installment of our Making Impact Podcast series, ODAIA’s co-founder, Helen Kontozopoulos met with Milos Popovic, Institute Director of KITE, the research arm of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, he is a Professor at the University of Toronto, and co-founder and Director of MyndTec. He joins Helen to discuss the initiatives in rehabilitation science that are transformative for healthcare professionals and patients alike.
The Origins of a New Technology to Help Heal Paralysis
When Milos first started his work in neuroprosthetics, he continued the existing research and technique of using electrical stimulators to activate muscle contraction to, for example, grasp an object. This stage of development had a vision to create an interface with the nervous system to accomplish movement of a person who is paralyzed by directly stimulating the nerves.
When it came time for Milos and his partner to start trialing the technology with patients to help them find better quality of life using their version of an electrical stimulator, but it hit a snag. “After, I don’t know, two months, the patient comes and says ‘I don’t need this anymore’. Now anyone who is familiar with assistive technology, that is a normal situation because people don’t like to use it, family members don’t want to put it on them, they don’t think they look pretty with the device…,” remembers Milos. However, though this response was anticipated, after asking a few more questions, Milos discovered that the patient no longer needed to wear the device because he had actually regained motor ability.
With this unexpected result, Milos was told this may be a fluke, a spontaneous recovery that was unlikely to be from the electrical stimulator device. This discovery was not a fluke, however, and Milos realized that there wasn’t a good neurological explanation yet for why his patients were “spontaneously recovering”, as neuroplasticity was not a widely adopted concept in the late 1990s. So, Milos continued to refine his device and eventually moved into highly successful clinical trials.
Entrepreneurial Journey: Commercialization of a Healthcare Technology
Despite the clinical evidence from his research phase, when Milos began approaching businesses about purchasing his new technology or them to produce and sell, he was met with a lukewarm response. After many rejections, he recalls, “You kind of go home and you look at yourself and say ‘You know what? This is kind of a shame.’ We built something that really works for patients, it makes a huge difference, apparently, and nobody wants it. So the only way we are going to get this to the patients is we are going to create a company…”
So the motivation for creating his own company didn’t come from a desire to be on the stock markets, it was about making a life-changing technology available to patients and healthcare providers to use with their patients. From this point on, Milos went through a fairly normal startup journey with acquiring business talent and product phases, until his business became a public company.
Today, this technology is sold through Milos’ company, MyndTec, in several countries and seeks approvals in several more. Though the journey to business success was anything but smooth, Milos has persevered through the challenges knowing that his company would be able to help change patients’ lives.
The KITE Research Institute
In addition to his business, Milos is also the Institute Director of KITE, the research arm of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, where adult patients living with a variety of conditions from dementia, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis and other conditions can be treated. With 50+ scientists working directly with KITE and another 70+ scientists and their students accessing the facilities, it has created a large network of innovation in the rehabilitation field. For Milos, the impact he makes at KITE is to ensure that the scientists, trainees, students and staff are enabled to support ongoing research, innovation and invention to benefit their patients. In addition to administrative staff like Milos, there are computer scientists, engineers, scientists, nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech language pathologists, medical doctors of a variety of specialities all contributing to the research conducted at KITE.
The three main areas of focus at KITE are: prevention, restoration and community integration. Something unique to KITE is the proportion of their budget and resources that goes toward the area of prevention. Trying to find solutions to problems that cause people to end up hospitalized is important to the mission of KITE. And if someone does, unfortunately, end up needing rehabilitation, the focus on restoring function to the individual becomes a priority. Though the goal is to restore a patient back to their pre-rehabilitation status, if that is not possible, assistance must be given to help them integrate in the community in a way that supports them with their abilities moving forward.
Two enterprises that Milos highlights are CRANIA and FIBRE. At CRANIA, Center for Advancing Neurotechnological Innovation to Application, KITE is working in partnership with the University of Toronto. The focus of CRANIA is to develop neural implants for neuromodulation therapies to improve brain health and function for patients with conditions like Parkinson’s, epilepsy and others. FIBRE is a fabric based research platform focused on integrating smart textiles, as medical wearables, into the healthcare system. KITE partners with many post-secondary institutions in Toronto, as well as industrial partners, on the FIBRE initiative.
In the future Milos hopes to continue in his role at KITE to provide a level of certainty that decreases the stress of the innovators so they can focus on developing the next generation of technology that will bring patient recovery to a whole new level. In his own research, he would like to continue to uncover the possibilities of noninvasive electrical stimulation in the treatment of depression, which will hopefully make an impact on the millions of people struggling with that disorder.
This is the seventh installment of ODAIA’s Making Impact Podcast series, where we interview other thought leaders who are using cutting-edge technology to innovate in the life sciences. Listen to our previous episode with Ketaki Desai, previously the Vice President of Business Development, at the Ontario Center of Innovation, to learn more about how she envisions the future of commercializing research and funding early stage startups in life sciences.