Ottawa health-tech startup draws on VR technology to make surgeons' jobs easier

VR models
Realize Medical’s system, dubbed Elucis, allows medical engineers to “draw” complex 3D images such as the inner workings of a patient’s knee in a VR environment. Photo courtesy Realize Medical

An Ottawa biotech startup that uses virtual reality to create 3D medical models that help doctors map out surgeries is partnering with software powerhouse Logitech as it prepares to pitch its product to hospitals and universities.

Realize Medical’s system, dubbed Elucis, allows medical engineers to “draw” complex 3D images such as the inner workings of a patient’s knee in a VR environment. 

Currently, these models of the human anatomy ​– which are often used in hospitals to help surgeons plot out complicated operations or to help explain surgical procedures to patients ​– are produced on 3D printers. But Realize Medical co-founder Justin Sutherland says the 3D printing process is expensive and time-consuming, limiting the usefulness of such models.

Sutherland, a medical clinician at the Ottawa Hospital and a professor at the University of Ottawa, says his company’s tech will make such 3D models more affordable and accessible to hospitals and educational institutions ​– making it much easier for a patient who needs brain surgery, for example, to visualize how the operation will go simply by strapping on a VR headset and being guided through the process step by step.

Sutherland says 3D medical models give a far more complete picture of the inner workings of the human body than traditional two-dimensional images from MRIs and CAT scans. He equates current technology to a mechanic trying to troubleshoot a problem by looking at a photo of a motor.

“It would be almost impossible to look at that engine and then diagnose what’s wrong,” he says. “That’s the challenge that we have with the way we interact with medical imaging today.” 

Deal with software giant

Earlier this month, the eight-person startup inked a deal with software giant Logitech that will see Realize Medical’s customers use the multinational conglomerate’s styluses to help draw 3D images.

“It was the perfect fit because we were hoping that we wouldn’t have to produce these pens,” Sutherland explains.

Although the company’s products are still in the pretrial phase, Sutherland says Realize Medical is hoping to get regulatory approval to sell its products to clinics in Canada and the United States by the middle of next year. The tech is now being beta-tested at a handful of hospitals and post-secondary schools, including Toronto’s prestigious Michener Institute of Education.  

Currently fuelled by about $270,000 from a recent friends-and-family round, Realize Medical is aiming to land more seed funding this fall. The founders are casting a wide net, seeking investors in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Boston and other East Coast cities.

Sutherland says the firm hopes to use the future funding to continue to develop its technology, which he believes will soon allow an expert in Toronto, for example, to help demonstrate a delicate operation to a surgeon in the Far North by sharing the same virtual headspace inside a 3D model.    

“I have a lot of ideas for where we want to take this,” says Sutherland, who founded the startup last year with fellow clinician Dan La Russa and lawyer Morgan Jarvis. 

Sutherland concedes it’s been an uphill battle trying to build a medical startup during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company was slated to debut the beta version of Elucis in March at a conference in Chicago that got cancelled at the last minute, and it’s been tough to capture the attention of hospital administrators during the biggest health-care crisis in a century.

But he says the firm is slowly gaining traction nonetheless. 

Sutherland says requests are flooding in for online demos of the product. In addition, Taylor Fantin, who helped build online natural supplement platform Fullscript into one of the city’s fastest-growing companies, joined Realize Medical as its chief financial officer this spring, bringing instant credibility to the fledgling operation’s C-suite and providing invaluable advice.  

“He’s been a great help for us in terms of guiding our direction,” Sutherland says.