Nov. 23, 2021

SPARK Calgary helps digital health innovators take that next step

Program supports UCalgary community to bridge the gap from research to clinical practice
The three people of 8 Bit Cortex smile at the camera with their backs to a sunny window overlooking the city.
8 Bit Cortex team Araz Minhas, Ty McKinney, and Shannon Snaden are a current SPARK Calgary team. David Kim

Academics understand that their evidenced-based concepts or research results could be impactful outside of the laboratory. But taking the next step to turn those results into a minimum viable product (MVP) can seem daunting without proper support. Who do you talk to? How do you fund this? Where do you go next?

The University of Calgary’s W21C Research and Innovation Centre launched SPARK Calgary last year to tackle these questions for campus and community innovators working to advance evidenced-based digital health innovations.

SPARK Calgary is part of a global network of 60 academic institutions across six continents. Launched in 2006 at Stanford University, the SPARK model provides the education and mentorship necessary to advance research discoveries from the bench to the bedside.

“SPARK Calgary is focused on digital health technologies that have the potential to truly make care better in clinical and community settings,” says Dr. Scott Kraft, MD, director of SPARK Calgary and clinical assistant professor in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). “The program is ideally situated in W21C to support academics within the university in moving their innovations from an idea into a reality.”

The SPARK Calgary program facilitates connections to industry experts and digital health advisers, as well as granting opportunities. The program also provides education, project management support, and access to resources to help advance each team’s innovation.

A photo of two men who comprise the MOUNT team, smile at the camera.

Mohammed Almekhlafi and Craig Doram are a current SPARK Calgary team and are working toward developing their technology concept in the Monitoring of Motor Function in Stroke (MOUNT) clinical trial.

Craig Doram

Monitoring of Motor Function in Stroke (MOUNT)

The Calgary Stroke Program’s Craig Doram, BSc (Eng)’08, and Dr. Mohammed Almekhlafi, MD, associate professor, CSM, are a current SPARK Calgary team with their Monitoring of Motor Function in Stroke (MOUNT) clinical trial, which is focused on faster identification and treatment of stroke without increasing the demand for skilled bedside assessments. MOUNT has been collecting interface pressure and motion tracking data of hospitalized stroke patients and is collaborating with graduate students in the Schulich School of Engineering’s Biometrics Technology Laboratory to develop initial machine learning algorithms. After seeing the promising results of the trial, they knew this opportunity had commercial potential and applied to SPARK Calgary.

“SPARK has opened doors and provided resources for us that we didn’t anticipate,” says Doram. “Through the program, we were connected in with Innovate Calgary’s Expert Adviser program, which has been immensely valuable to help us transition from a clinical idea to a commercial opportunity.”

Since joining the SPARK program in March of this year, Doram and Almekhlafi have incorporated a company for their technology concept and are developing a MVP to expand the clinical application into wearables for stroke monitoring at home.

Ty McKinney of 8 Bit Cortex smiles slightly at the camera, he is wearing a baseball hat and a shirt with a cactus print.

Ty McKinney was inspired to create 8 Bit Cortex during his graduate studies. Now a SPARK Calgary team, he advises other academic innovators that you are more prepared than you think, and need to take a leap of faith.

David Kim

8 Bit Cortex

Dr. Ty McKinney, PhD, understood during his graduate studies that psychological assessment using brain wave technology and smartphones could be used to better understand some of the mental health challenges people are facing. This planted the seed for him to develop 8 Bit Cortex, a gamified mental health assessment tool.

After attempting to build the app in grad school, McKinney, who is the research director for the Branch Out Neurological Foundation, found business partner Shannon Snaden, MBA’19. The pair then found two full stack developers, including CSM undergraduate student Araz Minhas, and additional university student volunteers to help make McKinney’s idea a reality.

The team joined SPARK in March and have taken full advantage of the mentorship, support, and education programs provided, in addition to the project accountability they have been held to on their innovation journey.

“You want to be supported, but people also need to be held accountable. It is the unique combination of those things that promotes growth and success,” says McKinney. “SPARK has done a great job of providing both of those for us.”

Advice for other academic innovators

Since starting on their paths to commercialization, SPARK Calgary teams have progressed through different stages on their innovation journeys. For other academic innovators considering taking their first steps to develop a MVP, McKinney says, “You are more prepared than you think, you need to take a leap of faith and things will work out.”

“Reach out to a lot of people, cast a very large net, and don’t be afraid to start talking with people,” advises Doram. “There is a ton of expertise in the university looking at technology in health care, but you also need to prepare for a longer ride than you anticipated."

“There are many resources within the University of Calgary and the city like W21C, Innovate Calgary, and Platform Calgary available for you to go and talk to people and explore your ideas,” adds Almekhlafi.

W21C’s ability to foster connections with university, community, and industry partners has been an immense benefit to SPARK Calgary teams. W21C provides in-kind research services such as clinical trial support and human factors services. In some cases, they may also be able to lend equipment to meet innovators’ needs. For example, W21C provided the pressure mattress sensing systems used in a previous study to aid in the MOUNT clinical trial.

After two cohorts of teams, the SPARK Calgary digital health innovators have experienced some exciting successes: filing three patents, developing two prototypes, and receiving over $50,000 in grants.

If you are a faculty member, a postdoctoral researcher, or a current student with a research-based digital health innovation, visit the SPARK Calgary page to learn more about the program and view when applications for the next cohort open.

Scott Kraft is a neurologist and a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

Mohammed Almekhlafi is an interventional stroke neurologist and an associate professor in the departments of Clinical Neurosciences, Radiology, and Community Health Sciences. He is a member of the CSM’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.