Smart tech for a better life

Defining the future of healthcare at uOttawa Engineering
Dr. Abdulmotaleb El Saddik demonstrates a glove-based tool that responds to pressure.

The market for IoT devices and applications for improved patient care and general health and wellness is growing faster than ever before, thanks in large part to the needs of an aging population.

It would appear to be a ripe opportunity for Canada, given our collective expertise in artificial intelligence, mixed reality, IoT, robotics, SaaS and nanotechnology. Public and private sector organizations across the country are pushing the boundaries for wearable and implantable technology, predictive analytics and cyber-physical systems, and other technologies for health care and augmented life.

But it is an ecosystem that has yet to pull itself together.

“In Canada in general we are lacking HQP – highly qualified personnel – in this area,” said Dr. Abdulmotaleb El Saddik. “It’s really a major challenge. We don’t have sufficient expertise in well-being systems and applications.”

Dr. El Saddik is a Research Chair and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the Faculty of Engineering.

While Canada does have many companies in this space, there is a lack of targeted research, he added. A lot of R&D is imported from elsewhere. Startups and mid-sized companies struggle to find investors. Many technologies are “developed as an island,” with the intellectual property fiercely guarded. That leaves little room for the collaboration and partnership that could accelerate new product development and  commercialization.

Enter the Medical Devices Innovation Institute (MDI2)

The University of Ottawa’s MDI2, part of the Faculty of Engineering, fosters collaboration among key stakeholders to address their needs, finds solutions to sector-specific barriers and challenges, and drives the development of leading-edge wellbeing systems and talent. The goal is to bring innovative ideas from concept to deployment.

Enabling Technologies for Health Care and Augmented Life has been identified as a strategic strength of the Faculty of Engineering, with a strong core of professors and graduate students working in these fields.

Dr. El Saddik and MDI2’s team have a broad focus on medical device usage in healthcare delivery and knowledge creation. That applies to any device, material or application used in medical rehabilitation, treatment, prevention or diagnosis.

They are working to connect those “islands” and create that rising tide that will float all ships. This includes addressing the shortage of HQP, with initiatives such as the CREATE-BEST (Biomedical Engineering Smartphone Training) program, funded by NSERC.

By tinkering with technologies like sensors, actuators, deep learning, wearable, haptics and social media, MDI2 and its partners are creating the next generation of smart wellbeing and health systems. It’s all about rising to the big data challenge posed by digital transformation and the Internet of Things.

“We are demonstrating that Ottawa, and Canada, has the knowhow to attract support and partnership from the public and private sector,” Dr. El Saddik said. “Our three-legged mandate is to create multidisciplinary research, training to produce more highly qualified people, and workshops to bridge the gap between academia and industry.”

How MDI2 is making a difference

Dr. El Saddik’s particular area of expertise is the digitization, communication and security of the sense of touch, or haptics. This extends to “mixed reality,” as people interface with technology through some combination of augmented reality, virtual reality and tactile control.

One project is a chair with embedded sensors to track and analyze posture, ergonomics and provide alerts to the user when they’ve been sitting too long. Another is a device to assist persons with a visual impairment while they are shopping.

Other projects include:

CREATE-BEST (Biomedical Engineering Smartphone Training): Funded by NSERC, this program provides professional training and practical employment-ready skills to engineering graduate students to create mobile apps for medical applications, so-called mHealth. Learn more at create-best.com.

Long Distance Disaster Assistance: In collaboration with Toronto’s Monroe Solutions, Dr. El Saddik modified a regular construction helmet to equip it with a 3D visual feed, two-way audio connection and even tactile communications. The device can instantly link isolated paramedics to medical specialists in an emergency room hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away.

Learn more about MDI2 and about the Faculty of Engineering at engineering.uOttawa.ca.