How to prevent the elderly from falling, how to keep them driving longer, how to make it practical for them to stay in their homes as long as possible — all these problems are on the radar of Geoff Fernie and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

The research lab prides itself on applying technology to real world problems and creating solutions that can be taken to market.

The proof is in the three companies spun out of Fernie's research institute so far, one of which will launch a product at the end of the year to easily detect sleep apnea.

'If you’ve got a disability there’s two ways to fix it. One is to find the engineering to change you, the other is to change your environment' — Geoff Fernie, Toronto Rehab Institute

“We don’t study problems, we solve them,” says Fernie, an industrial engineer who has spent his entire career on the challenges faced by the elderly or disabled.

“If you’ve got a disability there’s two ways to fix it. One is to find the engineering to change you, the other is to change your environment.”

Geoff Fernie

Geoff Fernie says the Toronto Rehab Institute seeks to find real world solutions that are commercially viable. (CBC)

He works with a team of medical and engineering graduates, all of them innovators.

Together they’ve developed products that include a house that takes your blood pressure and monitors people for falls, a lift device that will help nurses who must turn and lift patients, and an anti-collision wheelchair. The goal is to roll out their solutions for maximum benefit. 

That could mean retraining in the health-care sector, or a roll-out to the private sector, but it also could mean changing the design of, for example, the basement stairs.

Change the environment

Fernie said his research team was able to push through a change in Canadian building codes earlier this year to increase the size of steps to the basement to 10 inches from eight. That simple change will minimize falls, he said.

“It will save a lot of lives, it will save a lot of head injuries, it will save a lot of misery, just that one event,” he said.

Consider the sleep apnea device. As many as one in 10 Canadians may have sleep apnea, a condition in which they stop breathing during their sleep. The condition can leave those affected fatigued and contribute to cardiovascular problems.

Many people don’t know they have sleep apnea, Fernie said, and there is a two-year wait in some provinces for an appointment in a sleep lab to diagnose the condition.

The device developed at the Toronto Rehab Institute is a microphone that records breathing during the night and can detect the condition. It could be commercially available by the end of the year.

'I’m trying to build a successful commercial revenue stream and I’m trying to get us into the habit of launching lots of commercial companies.' — Geoff Fernie

Fernie estimates the lab has about 200 problems on the go in any given year. Medical and engineering professionals work together and a collection of simulators — a winter conditions simulator, a home simulator, a falls lab — help them test some potential solutions.

“You start off by observing the situation, being involved in the hospital, being involved in the community. We know that the technology exists, we can bring it together with the problem,” he said.

Make the business case

Throughout the development and testing of any concept, the researchers are asked to make a business case for any potential solution.

Funding is always a challenge for the institute, which gets some of its resources through research grants and some through charitable giving.

“I’m trying to build a successful commercial revenue stream and I’m trying to get us into the habit of launching lots of commercial companies,” Fernie said.

He’s run up against a lack of venture capital for the startup companies, but said he is learning to source money from "business angels."

“We’re beginning to know those angels and we’re beginning to work with them. But what I’m hoping to develop is more of a pool of capital so we can work more quickly to fill the venture gap,” he said.

The falls lab develops rehab techniques for people who have fallen or are at risk of falling. It features a harness to hold up the test subject and a floor that drops away or otherwise trips the subject.

Teaching skills

“As people get older, they get less successful at rescuing themselves [when they trip],” he said. “We want to teach people how to rescue themselves.”

“We’ve learned that if you want to prevent people from falling, you give them practice falls,” he added.

One of Fernie’s big interests is footwear, which can often mean the difference between falling and keeping your balance. He tests various brands in his winter lab, measuring their properties on ice, wet ice, snow over ice and other conditions that Canadians might face during the winter.

“One of the first things I want to do is come up with a better labelling system so we can buy the shoes that work in our environment,” he said, envisioning labelling on shoes that would let consumers know about their performance on ice and snow.