Strengthening our health innovation backbone

The prospect of a new Federal Health Accord is fuelling debate about healthcare funding and priorities. Without question, revitalizing Canada’s healthcare system requires fresh thinking. Amidst the ongoing debates and negotiations, should there not also be a focus on good old fashioned Canadian innovation and entrepreneurial spirit? I believe there should be.

In Canada, when we think of innovation and entrepreneurship, we often think of tech start-ups. Indeed, start-ups are a fundamental part of the innovation ecosystem. However, one of the big challenges Canada faces is nurturing growth beyond start-up phases and helping to diffuse innovations into the marketplace here at home. In the healthcare sector, this is exacerbated by our fragmented system, in which regional innovations stand a chance on a local level, but fall short of scaling up nationally.

The current reality is that many burgeoning Canadian success stories seek US and foreign markets in which to prove themselves. The digital health sector and government can each play important roles to change this. What’s needed is a paradigm shift from the traditional buyer-seller mindset to, instead, one that is focused on growing innovation. Strong and supported innovation engines across the country can provide exceptional opportunities for healthcare to become an economic growth engine for Canada.

What’s needed is a paradigm shift from the traditional buyer-seller mindset to, instead, one that is focused on growing innovation.

A role for industry and for government
I believe there is an important role for larger and more established industry players to create the backbone for an ecosystem onto which we onboard start-up companies and enable their innovations to scale.

Take some of what TELUS is doing as an example. Our TELUS Ventures arm identifies market-leading entrepreneurs and supports them with investments to broaden their impact. We also actively support digital health clusters, such as TEC Edmonton, and this summer announced the launch of the T-Squared Accelerator, a collaboration that will provide promising early-stage technology companies with 12 months of free incubation space and support in Edmonton’s Enterprise Square, along with seed funding to advance their business. In the Greater Toronto Area, we have actively supported TO Health!and MaRS Innovation since their inception; and in Montreal have been engaged members of Montreal In Vivo, a cluster bringing together the entire life sciences sector in the area. Clusters provide an important framework and forum for innovators to come together, and for large enterprises like TELUS, they play an important curating role in bringing these next-gen ideas to the fore.
From a future-forward standpoint, we envision leveraging our communications infrastructure to create a national, vendor-neutral marketplace for healthcare innovations. The potential exists to provide an aggregate data commons – an ecosystem in which innovators can build apps and create a national marketplace for next-gen solutions.

There is also an important role for governments to continue to promote and support private industry, beyond funding, as is the case in other jurisdictions like New Zealand and Germany where trade associations, companies and government work in concert to nurture innovations and see businesses thrive.

With government programs that support not only the incubation, but the maturation and broad adoption of Canadian health IT innovations, we can buy and build locally more often. We can turn our innovation loose to solve some of the seemingly intractable problems facing healthcare and, at the same time, grow a more robust digital sector in Canada. We can also increase the export of these innovations.

We can turn our innovation loose to solve some of the seemingly intractable problems facing healthcare and, at the same time, grow a more robust digital sector in Canada.

At a time when public funding and its performance are under tremendous scrutiny, there is an opportunity for Government to change the conversation, stipulate the desired outcomes when it comes to healthcare systems and performance, and let the private sector meet this challenge with creativity, innovation and accountability. After all, is necessity not the mother of invention?

Vibrancy, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit
Those of us who have been in the IT sector for a while will recall the start-up ecosystems of yore, contained to specific geographies like Silicon Valley and Boston. Yet today, as noted in Compass Research’s 2015 global start-up ecosystem ranking, technology entrepreneurship is a global phenomenon with start-up ecosystems emerging around the world and an interconnected, global start-up landscape is taking shape.

An interconnected, global start-up landscape is taking shape.

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) takes a strategic approach to innovation, informed by industry, academia, clinicians and other stakeholders. It has identified four specific ways that it facilitates economic growth, including accelerating adoption and diffusion of innovation throughout the NHS and working in partnership with UK industry to provide new business opportunities abroad. In other words, the NHS buys local and actively supports exporting home-grown innovations.

New Zealand is similarly inspiring and has seen a 60% increase in public investment in science and innovation since 2007. Its innovation policy run by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is transparent, coherent and integrated and targeted on research and development. Health ministries support industry by adopting locally developed technologies and by joining entrepreneurs and actively participating in global trade missions.

In Canada, there is no lack of entrepreneurial spirit. Numerous organizations like TEC Edmonton and MaRS Innovation in Ontario and Canada Health Infoway nationally are doing their utmost to enable Canadian innovation. However, despite these types of efforts, Canada’s entrepreneurial edge is slipping. According to Compass Research, the start-up ecosystems that had the largest declines since 2012 included Vancouver and Toronto, slipping from #8 and #9 of the 20 ecosystems ranked globally, to #17 and #18 respectively (with Montreal in last place).

Without strong innovation ecosystems, the ability to incubate and mature technologies, and the will to buy and nurture local innovations, the majority health IT purchased in Canada will continue to be sourced from the United States and Europe, as is the unfortunate case today.

Where to start?
There are many opportunities where the digital health sector can focus its activities to align with healthcare priorities across the country. Home- and community-based care, virtual care, and patient self-management, are critical areas where investment and innovative business models can ensure people are receiving excellent continuity of care outside of hospital walls. Consumer-oriented healthcare delivery is another area that is ripe for innovation and that Canadians are demanding.

Technology holds the promise to transform healthcare into a truly sustainable patient-centric, community-based delivery system. Canada will thrive with policies that propel companies and entrepreneurs to create products and solutions that help advance our society in previously unforeseen ways as well as experiment with different approaches – scaling up initiatives that work well and learning expeditiously from those that don’t.

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