Informative, educational and full of taboo-breaking discussions, this year’s MaRS Impact Health featured more than 100 speakers exploring emerging trends in biotech, clinical trials, AI, wearables, musical therapies and women’s health. Plus, over the two-day conference, 244 meetings took place between founders, investors, customers and collaborators to further the discussions on high-potential opportunities in the health and life sciences space.
Here are some key takeaways from this year’s MaRS Impact Health:
Advancing healthcare requires more than just science as Jessica Chutter knows all too well. As the chair of biotech investment banking at Morgan Stanley with more than 30 years of experience in the field, Chutter has seen multiple boundary-pushing cycles in the biotech space. While the market is volatile, investments in biotech remain significant and we’re continuing to see clinical success and strategic activity in the healthcare industry, she told Sean Silcoff, a technology reporter at the Globe and Mail, in a fireside chat. And, Canada’s ecosystem is strengthening and maturing, she added. Business plans and vision are comparable to our U.S. counterparts, as more companies co-headquarter in cross-border markets. One critical factor for scaling firms, however, will be to create a streamlined portfolio that looks at multiple sources of funding and includes potential strategic partnerships.
A network effect: Chutter sees great potential in Toronto’s science community. In addition to attracting big pharma and U.S. investors, there is a growing recognition of the benefits of pooling people, science and capital. Successful companies breed successful companies, she said, as these firms essentially act as super-spreaders for advancement in the ecosystem.
Telemedicine has made considerable gains over the past decade, defying the traditional facility-based model of medicine. Accelerated further by COVID-19, many practices are now operating remotely, and that includes clinical trials. There is a clear benefit of convenience to the patient — and with that convenience comes a reduced carbon footprint, geographic and socio-economic diversity, faster recruitment of participants, as well as increased engagement through the course of a trial. Of course, not all products are appropriate for decentralized trials; the future is likely a hybrid model. Marlise Benz, a senior director of study management at AstraZeneca, stressed the importance of carefully planning decentralized trials early on, as it can be more challenging to slot decentralized approaches into the model after the fact. Early development tools like micro sampling are important, as is thinking through risk assessment to ensure that the patient’s self-treatments are safe. Guidance and regulation surrounding decentralized trials are still a bit murky, but there are signs of progress. Regulators have taken note of this shift, and several legislation changes are now underway for completion in the next year or so.
Final thought: “We need to be flexible for patients; and it’s not just about giving them technologies to help them stay at home,” said Scott Askin, portfolio innovation director at Novartis. “It’s designing the trials that fit around a patient’s life.”
Scientists have been fascinated by the effect of music on the brain for years. Strong evidence supports the correlation between music and the production of dopamine. Music has been shown to be a viable alternative to prescription drugs, it can help with physical pain and even improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The next step? Integrating the results into the medical system of care.
And the tech in this space is mind-bending. Zachary McMahon, CEO and co-founder of LUCID, is developing a novel digital therapeutic for Alzheimer’s to reduce neuropsychiatric symptoms of the disease. Using a facial tracking video system and wrist sensor, the LUC-101 system personalizes audio for the patient while monitoring subtle responses that indicate a reduction in agitation and sense of pleasure. The data is then used to curate a playlist that consistently produces optimal outcomes in the patient — including tapping into their long-term memory. Although plenty of research exists that supports music as medicine, limited applications can scientifically back the claim. LUCID is pursuing trials with the goal of being an approved digital therapeutic, recognized by the regulators with a clear reimbursement pathway for the caregiver.
What’s next: The accessibility of musical therapy to the aging population is low. Phase one of LUCID’s rollout will target early-stage dementia patients living at home with caregivers. With those learnings, LUCID plans to scale to assisted living and long-term care homes.
“Hey ChatGPT, where should I make the incision?” The chatbot has entered the operating room. With the ability to consume terabytes of information and analyze image sets, machine learning can support clinical decision-making. If you’re not quite comfortable with ChatGPT as your doc’s right-hand man, the deep-learning tool can help synthesize patient information and prepare reports, freeing up valuable time for clinicians. There are ethical concerns to work through, however. The AI has inaccurately presented untrue results based on bad data. Ricky Mehra, founder and managing partner of Continuum Health Ventures, is confident we can solve data issues, but is leery of privacy issues (like the previously mentioned chatbot in the operating room).
Talking point: “It’s going to be very difficult to pause — the genie is out of the bottle,” said Mehra. “But we do need to think hard about what the serious existential consequences could be.”
Women’s health encompasses a lot more than our reproductive capabilities — so why do we continue to pigeonhole the sector? With a multi-segment program dedicated to FemTech at this year’s conference, the panelists were quick to correct the narrative. Marina Pavlovic Rivas, co-founder and CEO of Eli Health, is developing a product that measures women’s hormones through saliva sampling, forming a data set to reference at multiple stages of life. In addition to fertility and reproductive health, certain hormone groups can be analyzed to indicate symptoms of mental health, cardiovascular diseases, and even endocrine conditions. Another solution — called Looop by Neuraura, uses micro electrodes with a combined wearable to rebalance women’s hormones and treat PCOS, a condition affecting mental health and tied to diabetes. The market remains largely untapped due to the lack of research, lack of funding and the perceived notion that women’s health is a “niche market.” That’s starting to change as more investors realize the economic opportunity.
Final thought: “We need to stop being afraid to say the word vagina and we need to stop thinking that women’s only use is for giving birth, and menstruating,” Rachel Bartholomew, founder and CEO of Hyivy.
Learn more about the game-changing health companies in the MaRS portfolio.
Photo credit: Jeff Beardall