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Get in gear: The growing need for assistive technology

People with disabilities often can’t get the devices they need. A new mobility hub at MaRS aims to change that.

Christopher Hutchison was like many aspiring entrepreneurs — intelligent, charismatic, ambitious. Then a horrific accident sent his world into chaos. In 2009, Christopher, then 17 years old, fell under a train in Switzerland and needed to have one leg amputated above the knee and the other below. It was a difficult adjustment: strangers’ stares made him feel like a pariah, and his ill-fitting prosthetics left him with sores and blisters. He wanted to make it easier to find prosthetics that actually fit, and realized there was a gap in the market. So, in 2014, he founded ProsFit, a world leader in affordable and scalable prosthetics. The company uses automation to design, sculpt and 3D-print its devices, making them more durable and bespoke to the user. In 2020, the company was one of the winners of the inaugural Toyota Startup Award for its assistive innovations.

“After his accident, people thought there was something wrong with him,” says Alan Hutchison, Christopher’s father and ProsFit CEO. “He merely had a challenge to overcome. Now he’s helping people with disabilities through our company.”

The demand for these kinds of assistive devices is massive. More than 2.5 billion people around the world currently need one or more types of assistive technology (such as prosthetics, scooters and wheelchairs) — and that figure is set to hit 3.5 billion by 2050. According to StatsCan, 27 percent of Canadians aged 15 years and older have at least one disability. In Ontario, it’s estimated that there are close to 20,000 amputees. And as Alan notes, many of them are using sub-par equipment, and live too far from larger cities to receive proper care.

MaRS and Toyota want to change this. The two institutions have joined forces to launch the Mobility Unlimited Hub, housed at MaRS in downtown Toronto. It’s an ambitious new program that will help Canada’s most-promising mobility startups commercialize their solutions.


Addressing the barriers promising startups face

Though loaded with expertise and resources, Canada has traditionally lagged behind rival nations when it comes to adopting new solutions. Jason MacFarlane, vice president of the innovation ecosystem at MaRS, has been part of the country’s startup community for more than two decades. He’s seen a lot of progress over the years, but notes that many challenges remain — particularly for health companies. “Ironically, the Canadian market is often less supportive to its homegrown companies, which forces them to look for customers in other countries before finding success at home,” MacFarlane says. “But we’re working to fix that.”

He points to three key barriers that startups face in scaling mobility solutions: historical and cultural stigma toward people with disabilities; a lack of investment due to a misconception that the market is too niche; and a resistance to change and collaboration from corporate giants that dominate the scene and possess outsized influence over government policy.

“There have been many mobility startups before us that didn’t survive the hostile landscape,” says Alan. “Sometimes we feel like the last man standing.” Since 2016, his team has partnered with many corporations, such as HP and Oracle, helping them to meet philanthropic targets as well as better understand the sector’s potential. (One report estimates that the international market for assistive tech will be worth $115 billion by 2030.) “Working together — better, cheaper, faster — is in everyone’s interest,” says Hutchison.


Hub of activity

Over the coming months, the Mobility Unlimited Hub will support a cohort of high-potential, early-stage Canadian startups. The goal is to accelerate product development and market entry, so that eventually these companies can unleash new products to the mass market, domestically and beyond.

“Canada has everything it needs to be a global leader in this sector,” says MacFarlane. “The Mobility Unlimited Hub is about making sure those companies advance. To do that, though, there’s a lot of work to be done to redefine the importance and opportunity for the venture capital, corporate and government communities.” The program’s unique services include: commercialization services, product testing, prototype development, PR support, connections to talent and, crucially, direct funding from Toyota.

“Our plan is that this is just the beginning,” says MacFarlane. “The ultimate vision is multi-year, with multiple cohorts running simultaneously.” Toronto is also a testbed of sorts for the Toyota Mobility Foundation. If successful, the MaRS hub will serve as a model for a future network of hubs around the world.


Driven by community

A community-driven approach is fundamental to the hub’s mission, ensuring solutions are developed with direct input from those they aim to serve. Alan Hutchison has been brought on as an advisor to the cohort’s collection of entrepreneurs. “I have experience as a founder and businessperson, and I want to share that,” he says. “I want this initiative to feel like a family. We’ll protect and nurture our companies, and also welcome innovators from industries that have been traditionally wary of change.”

The Hutchison family, for its part, is thriving. Christopher, ProsFit CTO and chairman, regularly shares his story, and the stories of other people with disabilities, with audiences around the globe. “He wants to make the world a better place,” says Alan. “It’s very special to work so closely with my son. And it’s very special to work with so many toward the same goal.”

Are you a tech company that wants to make the world more accessible? Apply to the Mobility Unlimited Hub today.

Illustration by Ana Fonseca, Images: Envato

MaRS Discovery District
MaRS is the world's largest urban innovation hub in Toronto that supports startups in the health, cleantech, fintech, and enterprise sectors. When MaRS opened in 2005 this concept of urban innovation was an untested theory. Today, it’s reshaping cities around the world. MaRS has been at the forefront of a wave of change that extends from Melbourne to Amsterdam and runs through San Francisco, London, Medellín, Los Angeles, Paris and New York. These global cities are now striving to create what we have in Toronto: a dense innovation district that co-locates universities, startups, corporates and investors. In this increasingly competitive landscape, scale matters more than ever – the best talent is attracted to the brightest innovation hotspots.

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