Edmonton destined to be health innovation hub, says medical task force

Move over oil and gas, the next economic driver for the Alberta economy will be innovative health technology if a gaggle of experts in Edmonton gets its way.

'We need that home to be right here,' says vice-chair of Health City

Health City is an economic development initiative, which industry leaders say is a unique model to turn Edmonton into a hub of innovative health care. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Move over oil and gas, the next economic driver for the Alberta economy will be innovative health technology, if a gaggle of experts in Edmonton gets its way.

Players from the private and public health, economic and technology sectors make up what's called Health City, a non-profit formed about a year and a half ago to support local talent and attract international investment.

They are determined to make Edmonton an economic hub of cutting-edge health care products and services.

"We have some great minds that come out of our universities," Jason Pincock, the CEO of Dynalife medical labs and vice chair of Health City told CBC News.

"If they are entrepreneurs and they want to build their companies here, we need to create an environment where that's actually possible."

Jason Pincock, CEO of Dynalife medical labs and vice-chair of Health City, said the non-profit aims to leverage local expertise to develop innovative health products to sell on global markets. (Dynalife)

Health City brings the players to the same table where they can discuss how to leverage local expertise and support homegrown, cutting-edge business.

Pincock said studies show where a company launches and brings its product to market is likely where it's going to call home.

"We need that home to be right here."

One example is a blood test being developed by local firm Nanostics Inc., based on research done at the University of Alberta. 

The test detects and predicts prostate cancer, and can replace the otherwise intrusive and costly biopsies. 

If we can improve business opportunity here, the whole city wins.- Coun. Bev Esslinger

"If that is successful that has obvious applications, not only for Albertans but also for the rest of the world," Pincock said.

"They were in a position where they needed a partnership or a group of players to help them get their technology over the finish line."

Another success story related to Health City is Mehadi Sayed, whose work with electronic medical records has piqued the interest of one of the world's biggest companies.

Mehadi Sayed said Microsoft approached his business Clinisys to develop electronic medical records using a cloud-based platform. (Clinisys)

Sayed, president and CEO of Clinisys EMR, has inked a deal with Microsoft to develop a method using the cloud-based platform, which would provide medical professionals across the industry easy access to patients' health information and medical records.

Sayed taught computer technology at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology for several years before starting his company in 2011 in Edmonton.

He said Microsoft approached him and they signed the deal last April.

"That is a big example of how a local company can grow and have the capacity to grow and take the products to a global level."

Sayed's company also supplies e-health products in Manitoba and Ontario with plans to expand in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. He's also in talks with Microsoft to export his technology to U.S. markets.

"We are a good example of a local company which developed from one person to where we are right now," Sayed siad. "We have quite a few scientists and partners working with us locally here."

Edmonton as host

In December, Edmonton city council unanimously agreed to give the group $985,000 from the 2018 operating budget.

The city's role is to host the health innovators and business people, said Coun. Bev Esslinger.

"We heard industry coming together and saying 'This is something we need, someone to facilitate this role'."

"It's really about gathering those people together — the movers and shakers in the industry."

The money helps give Health City an office and a few staff, which allows them to better help entrepreneurs navigate the possibilities, said Esslinger.

The economic development initiative will play a role in "growing our economic diversity," she said. 

"If we can improve business opportunity here, the whole city wins."

World stage

The CEO of TEC Edmonton, Chris Lumb, also believes the research potential from the universities is a driving force behind the future of health innovation.

"U of A in particular is a powerhouse in life sciences research, and that's a big thing."

Lumb's non-profit, partnered with the U of A, is working with multi-national pharmaceutical company, Merck, on an "accelerator" program. Their goal is to seek out where the next innovations from small businesses are coming, said Lumb.

Edmonton-based Clinisys does business in four provinces and has teamed up with Microsoft to develop an electronic medical record system that can be shared across the industry. (Clinisys)

"They could have gone anywhere in the world," Lumb said of Merck's decision to invest in Edmonton. "In fact, they haven't done it anywhere else in the world and they've chosen to do it here."  

"They see us as an environment that … welcomes them into a partnership."

For the health, technology and business experts, the optics of Health City are important to be able to market products globally, said Lumb.

"It goes miles," Sayed told CBC News. "It gives an impression that we are very organized. It also provides confidence to these companies who are coming in and looking for smaller players."

Edmonton's Silicon Valley

Pincock likens the potential of Edmonton's health technology industry to Silicon Valley in California.

"You go down to Silicon Valley and those conversations happen in every coffee shop," he said.

Health City was created when industry players realized a lot of the local talent was taking their ideas and products elsewhere, Pinock said.

"It changes the curve where Alberta actually becomes on the leading edge of access to these technologies, instead of on the lagging side."

"Make it easier for them to find their first office, to pilot their first product in our environment."

Chris Lumb, CEO of TEC Edmonton, says an accelerator project funded by multinational pharmaceutical company Merck is an exciting opportunity for Edmonton researchers. (TEC Edmonton)

Lumb believes health innovation will help governments keep up with the growing costs of healthcare.

"One way of doing that is applying innovation to improve the delivery of health," he said.

Health City is creating a method of measuring economic activity generated by Health City initiatives, with the goal of providing regular reports by late 2018.

About the Author

Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.