A startup incubated at the Ottawa Hospital is taking its first steps in the real world, hoping to make a big impact on an international medical crisis.
CANImmunize, a health-tech firm that provides a mobile solution to help patients track their vaccination records, is setting out into the startup life after years of testing and development within the Ottawa Hospital.
Dr. Kumanan Wilson, an internal medicine physician and researcher the University of Ottawa, says he first stumbled onto the need for a digital solution for vaccination records back in 2011 while talking to a “tech-savvy” mom one afternoon in Westboro. Her complaints about the traditional paper slip used to track her kids’ vaccinations inspired Wilson to find a better way.
“She wondered why she could do her banking on her phone, but why we couldn't put these immunization records on the phone,” he recalls.
Wilson reached out to a first-year engineering student to develop a basic prototype for the app, which he piloted at the Ottawa Hospital and across the province. The more time his small team spent on the idea, the more he realized there were persistent issues with vaccine awareness that could be solved through a digital solution.
With the free-to-use CANImmunize app, Wilson says health-care providers can do a more effective job of reminding people to get vaccinated, informing patients about diseases that can be prevented with vaccines and ensuring they’re receiving accurate information about the importance of getting regular shots for the body’s immune system.
Vaccines have become a hot-button issue in recent years. The World Health Organization listed “vaccine hesitancy” as a top-10 global threat in 2019 alongside widespread risks such as ebola and climate change. It cited a lack of trust in vaccines’ effectiveness and complacency as contributing factors in the resurgence of previously preventable diseases such as measles.
The CANImmunize solution caught the attention of the federal government, which has provided $4 million in funding to help expand the platform across Canada’s provinces and territories. Wilson says the team is currently looking to connect the mobile solution to health-care systems in Ontario and British Columbia, which could eventually give care providers, physicians and patients access to a patient’s vaccination records in real-time.
Spreading the CANImmunize solution across provincial borders has been good practice for taking the app worldwide, Wilson says, because immunization standards vary widely across Canada. A digital vaccination record that can travel across borders is part of Wilson’s long-term goal for CANImmunize.
“I've got a fairly firm vision in my mind about what the best immunization system in the world would look like. And the goal is to build that,” he says. “We think we have a real opportunity here to make a positive contribution to public health, both nationally and internationally.”
Wilson, who will become CEO of the new startup while remaining in his roles at the hospital and university, says his colleagues have also started to address their common pain points in their daily work with digital solutions.
The Ottawa Hospital recently started a “digital health lab” to connect physicians to programmers, designers and other scientists to develop in-house solutions that, like CANImmunize, could eventually be spun out into a fully fledged company. Invest Ottawa will soon launch a program with the Ottawa Hospital to recruit health-tech entrepreneurs for a similar purpose.
While he says the solution has gotten great traction within the Canadian health-care system, Wilson believes commercializing CANImmunize is a necessary step to achieve sufficient impact.
“It requires us to be very agile, very flexible and engage in multiple contracts,” he says. “We need to be in that corporate environment.”