André Bertram doesn’t think about barriers to innovation. That’s because he was just 17 when he co-founded HelpWear with his classmate Frank Nguyen. Since then, their wearable heart-monitoring idea has been gaining attention from clinicians, hospitals and all six members of the Dragons’ Den.
Already a seasoned entrepreneur at 20, he says the key attribute for a young person making progress in a challenging field such as medtech is ignorance. “When we started building this company it was just a piece of technology to solve a problem Frank’s mother had. We didn’t really know what a medical device was or how a heart attack worked.”
Armed with an idea, an innate talent for engineering and research — and determination, they ended up at Ryerson University’s Basecamp in Toronto, where they got their first $1,000 in seed funding for prototyping an ECG-grade wrist device that can detect irregularities in heartbeats. They attained FDA approval in nine months and developed a partnership with Bayer. In 2017, they also went through the Y Combinator program and Creative Destruction Labs West.
Now, HelpWear occupies space at the Biomedical Zone, a partnership initiative between Ryerson and St. Michael’s Hospital. It has a team of seven – all of whom are older than the founders.
Having working space within a hospital setting allows them to design solutions geared to what the patients and doctors need, Bertram says. “A lot of time, really smart engineers build cool technology to solve problems doctors don’t have. Other large companies, like GE, design solely for clinicians. Working with doctors and engineers allowed us to think of both sides of the equation.”
Despite the lack of experience when starting out, Bertram says being young has its benefits. “Zero respect for bureaucracy is a No. 1 advantage. We don’t have the patience for it.”
They are also able to open doors that others can’t. “Nobody was not willing to talk to us. When we said we were 18-year-olds trying to build a medical company, with St. Michael’s Hospital behind us, they saw it as a point of reputability. It allows us to move more quickly.”
While innovators in medtech encompass a broad spectrum of ages and experience, Dr. Linda Maxwell, director and founder of the Biomedical Zone, says it’s not uncommon to see young persons out of high school. “They are really effective and impactful. They don’t understand the barriers in front of them and are less ingrained in the machinery of healthcare so they can be disruptive, ambitious and adventurous. They haven’t been jaded by the system. But that’s tempered by deep intellectual capacity and insight, so they can figure out the channels and systems quickly.”
She firmly believes that younger entrepreneurs are a key part of moving healthcare innovation forward. “There are many more problems to be solved that need young people with fresh ideas and different approaches.”
They don’t understand the barriers in front of them … so they can be disruptive, ambitious and adventurous. They haven’t been jaded. But that’s tempered by deep intellectual capacity and insightDr. Linda Maxwell, St. Michael’s Biomedical Zone
Ben Nashman, a 17-year-old Toronto high school student and a member of The Knowledge Society after-school program, could very well be one of them. A co-founder of Synex Medical, he started his initial work in applying water molecule detection in MRI systems to gain more detailed, higher resolution images and significantly more data from brain scans.
While it was a ground-breaking idea, there was a hitch. “To build that technology with hardware was going to be expensive,” he says. “Two million dollars was a bit out of the budget of a 16-year-old.”
Like any smart entrepreneur, he changed his game plan. He switched his research to developing a miniaturized nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) device in the form of a wearable ring that can read concentrations of metabolites in the blood — such as glucose, cholesterol, amino acids and vitamins — without having to draw blood. “I realized two things. It would be logistically easier to do, and the potential impact would be way bigger than MRI,” he says. “The biggest potential would be glucose monitoring.”
Interested parties have been keen to help. ANSYS has provided modelling software, and Mount Sinai Hospital has allowed him to do the modelling on their computers. University of Toronto has also provided time on their system for his proof-of-concept work. He plans to have his first functional prototype by the summer.
While Nashman knows medtech is a challenging discipline, he is not daunted by it. “The startup costs are high and there are a lot of barriers to entry. But since I’m young, a lot of people are willing to help and give me advice, which is a big advantage.”