Waterloo Innovation Summit

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Posted on: October 10, 2019

The Waterloo Innovation Summit was held in E7 on October 1st, and a lot of students were caught off guard. People left class only to find entire floors crowded with investors and their ilk wearing suits and “networking”. Apparently there were events throughout the day, but I only managed to attend the Velocity startup pitch competition and the following interview with the Ontario Health Minister. The theme of the summit was “Beyond Impact: Re-imagining health with technology”.

A lot of chairs were assembled in rows facing a podium with a massive screen. Electronic music with extremely powerful bass disrupted everyone’s attempt at conversation. In the halls of E7, one could find some of the startup founders practicing their pitches. Eventually all the attendees settled in their seats, the bass stopped assaulting our eardrums and an announcer told us to share our social media posts with “#waterloobeyond”. If Twitter is any indication, this hashtag has been recycled from previous iterations of the event. Then, the main host of the pitch competition stepped into view.
Jay Shah is a University of Waterloo TRON graduate who founded BufferBox, a startup that was sold to Google for $25 million. Today, he is the director of Velocity, the University-affiliated startup incubator. He started by talking about how “intellectually stimulating” the previous events of the day had been. After promoting Velocity to an audience of investors, Jay Shah explained the premise of the pitch competition. First, each startup chosen for the event would have 3 minutes to make a pitch. Then, a panel of judges would privately decide on the best investment opportunity. The winning startup would receive a grant of $5000: significant for firms that haven’t already been approached by venture capitalists and angel investors. The judges were all involved in Velocity, all alumni of University of Waterloo, all involved with Y-Combinator, and all CEOs. Since this event was focused on medicine, all the judges had some knowledge of “medtech” as well.
The first pitch was from Micheal, representing “Bloomry”. Bloomry is trying to improve the treatment of children’s mental health using a massive data-set of “human uniqueness”. This data-set is not complete yet, so the first stage would be to build it up further. Eventually, users of the app (teachers mostly) would be provided training personalized to their childrens’ mental ailments. This is obviously more efficient than expecting teachers to understand every possible mental illness they may encounter in the student body. Micheal assured the audience that they would work closely with mental health professionals, revealed all the Bloomry founders (one of whom was a therapist), and concluded his pitch.
The next pitch was from Connor, representing “Insula”. The basic problem Insula has set out to solve is this: insulin pumps are extremely inconvenient. In particular, having a wireless receiver device separate from the rest of the pump was considered a nuisance by most patients, to the point where some patients were risking their lives to hack their pumps to stop using a receiver. Insula aimed to create a smaller, sleeker pump with integrated Bluetooth capabilities. Connor also pointed out that the market for insulin pumps would double by 2024, so there was an opportunity for a new company to seize massive market share. He also included a list of founders before concluding his pitch.
The third pitch was for a startup called “SheCycle”, which aimed to create menstrual products with an antimicrobial layer that could last an entire year. This would be one part of a larger effort to reduce the risk of urinary infections in developing nations such as Uganda. They would also need to fund local educators to help Ugandan girls use their product, in an effort to reduce school absenteeism caused by urinary infections. After providing a list of founders, the pitch concluded with a powerful message: “we have the ability to solve this, therefore we have the responsibility”.
Finally, there was a pitch for “WaterMine”, a startup aiming to use a proprietary database and AI to discover new pharmaceuticals, as well as new uses for existing generic drugs. This would shave off hundreds of millions of dollars in drug development costs. Once the new drugs (and new uses for old drugs) were identified, they’d be licensed to existing drug manufacturers for massive profits. Since this is apparently obligatory for these pitches, there was a list of founders here as well.
While the judges deliberated on their choices, Jay Shah returned to the podium to interview someone who apparently isn’t mentioned on the website. They talked at length about the challenges of working in the medical startup space. In addition to all the ‘normal’ startup concerns, medical startups have increased risk due to regulation, procurement and selling of a physical product, and validating that their technology actually works. Investors have a tougher time as well, since there are not really universally understood metrics for success in this area. If they don’t have any knowledge of medicine, the best they can do is notice the endorsements (or lack thereof) of third-party experts.
Jay Shah then revealed that the judges had returned from their “secure location” and were ready to say who won the pitch competition. One of the judges, Moufeed Kaddoura, was invited to speak on the judge’s behalf. Instead of just saying who won, he talked a bit about his time at ExVivo Labs and the criteria used to judge medical startups. First, are they tackling a big enough problem? Next, is their solution likely to succeed? Third, how do their metrics and current progress look? Finally, do the founders have the conviction to see their project through?
Now that everyone was at the edge of their seats wondering who won, Jay Shah returned to inform us that the winner was Bloomry. There wasn’t much pomp and ceremony, instead the next event began immediately: an interview with the Ontario Health Minister.
The Honorable Christine Elliot, Health Minister of Ontario made some opening remarks on the podium before entering a live interview with Lili Liu, Dean of Applied Health Sciences. There was a lot of discussion of the current government’s position on healthcare matters, and the Honorable Elliot’s view of the provincial healthcare market. Some of the major points of the interview included the need to protect the privacy of Ontarian’s health data, the need to improve quality of care, the need for healthcare solutions to be inclusive for everyone in the entire province, and the opportunity for healthcare to be a profit-making industry rather than a tax sink. The phrase “21st century healthcare” was tossed around a lot. Perhaps the most memorable part, however, was when the honorable Christine Elliot stated that Ontario must “get rid of taxes in healthcare”.

Afterwards, Sandra Banks, the Vice-President of University Relations, made some concluding remarks about the main themes of the conference. Only one of these themes was the “audacious mission” of startup founders: the other themes were perhaps expounded upon in earlier events of the summit.

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