Out of this world: Ottawa tech firms shortlisted for Canadian Space Agency’s health-care challenge

Mars stock image
Mars stock image

A pair of Ottawa-based companies are among 20 firms from across Canada vying for a potential payday of close to a million dollars to develop health-care technologies that could be deployed on missions to the moon and Mars as well as in remote communities here on Earth.

ADGA Group and IndigenousTech.ai have been named semifinalists in the Deep Space Healthcare Challenge, a program launched by the Canadian Space Agency and Impact Canada, a federally funded initiative aimed at tackling issues such as global warming and food insecurity. 

More than 100 organizations, including tech firms, non-profit groups and educational institutions, applied for the program, which aims to spawn new technologies to help frontline health-care workers diagnose and treat patients in remote environments such as Canada’s North and, eventually, missions in outer space. 

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An 11-person jury that includes Canadian astronaut David St-Jacques and Digital Health Canada CEO Mark Casselman then whittled those entries down to 20 semifinalists, who will each receive $30,000 to create a proof-of-concept. The results will be judged early next year, with five finalists each receiving $350,000 to further develop their technology before the winner of the $500,000 grand prize is chosen in 2024.

ADGA Group is developing a system that uses artificial intelligence and augmented reality technology to deliver real-time medical advice and support to patients and health-care workers in remote areas where doctors are scarce. 

The company’s “virtual medical assistant” doesn’t require a video link to help guide users through medical procedures. Instead, the system, called MedCoach, delivers step-by-step instructions to patients and health-care workers from a database of pre-recorded algorithms and procedures. 

Computer-generated graphics

Users wear a headset which superimposes computer-generated graphics and other information over the real-world environment – for example, highlighting which vein a needle should be inserted into to take a patient’s blood sample. The platform is voice-activated so users don’t have to risk contaminating a wound site by touching items such as instruction manuals.  

ADGA Group director of space solutions Nicolas Barbeau said the company hopes the technology will one day help astronauts on long-term missions such as trips to Mars treat medical issues in situations where it could take 20 minutes or more for messages to travel back and forth between a spacecraft and the Earth, making remote medical consultations impractical.

“You can’t count on having a Zoom call … where a physician can guide someone through a procedure step by step,” Barbeau said.

The firm, which has been working on the technology for the past year and a half, now has a five-person R&D team devoted to the project as it strives to advance to the next phase of the competition. It expects the total investment to top $1.5 million if it makes it all the way to the final.

Meanwhile, Ottawa’s IndigenousTech.ai is partnering with Vancouver-based AI company MetaOptima to develop a mobile app that uses machine learning to help health-care workers remotely diagnose and treat a range of skin conditions, including melanoma and psoriasis, and care for wounds.

More than two million patients worldwide already use MetaOptima’s technology, which taps into a database of more than 10 million images to help diagnose skin conditions for patients in remote areas such as the Australian Outback.

But IndigenousTech.ai chief executive Murray Rowe says the platform has relatively few images of Indigenous Canadians on file, something his firm hopes to correct. 

Since each racial group has slightly different DNA, that dearth of data makes it harder to accurately diagnose Aboriginal patients here, he explained. Rowe said more effective technology could save time and money by diagnosing patients on remote reserves on site rather than having to fly them to a major city to consult with a dermatologist.

“They’re kind of viewing remote Indigenous communities (as) similar to a space expedition – you don’t have specialists nearby, you have hours of transport,” said Rowe. “The average size of a reserve in Canada is 500 people, so you have issues with resources, technology, drug treatment therapies and so forth, so you have to be very innovative.”

Aboriginal-controlled company

The only Aboriginal-controlled company in the competition, IndigenousTech.ai was founded two years ago to kickstart Indigenous-developed technology. 

The 20-person startup’s principal shareholder is renowned businessman Clarence Louie, the chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and founder of the band’s development corporation that runs successful companies in a range of industries – including Nk’Mip Cellars, the first Aboriginal-owned winery in North America.

IndigenousTech.ai’s other products include a platform that conducts criminal background checks. Police departments across the country now use the software.

“We’re not really a startup,” said Rowe, who’s based in Ottawa. “We have an advantage. We’re well-funded; we’re profitable. We’re coming with a successful business model already running.

“Our hope is that we can continue to make a difference and save lives.”

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