Home  »  Jocelyn Wessels: Making a difference in women’s health

Jocelyn Wessels: Making a difference in women’s health

Endometriosis is a chronic and painful condition caused by tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus growing outside of it. The disorder affects one in 10 women worldwide, but even with that staggering number, there is no cure on the horizon. 

There are treatments to manage symptoms, which can reduce the pain it causes, but that requires an early diagnosis. Unfortunately, endometriosis is often challenging to diagnose because many general physicians are either unfamiliar with its symptoms or confuse them with other conditions. 

Helping women get diagnosed as early as possible is the mission of Dr. Jocelyn Wessels and her startup, AIMA Laboratories. Launched in 2021 by Wessels and co-founder Dr. Lauren Foster, AIMA Laboratories is developing a first-of-its-kind, non-invasive diagnostic tool to help detect endometriosis earlier so women can be provided with clarity on their condition, and manage their symptoms appropriately. 

An accidental entrepreneur

Wessels describes herself as an “accidental entrepreneur.” Before co-founding the startup, she spent more than 15 years as an academic researcher focusing on endometriosis and vaginal microbiomes. 

“I wanted to stay in academia and do the research side of things,” she says. “As academics, we developed and filed several patent applications but I always had this idea that some other company would come and license the intellectual property and take it to market.”

Wessels continued along the academic path. Then, as with many founder-origin stories, she came to an inflection point in her career.

“I was coming to the end of several years of post-doctoral work, and the landscape for Canadian academic jobs had dwindled because of the pandemic. So, I had to have a conversation with myself and ask: What do I like to do? What do I want to do, and what am I capable of doing?” 

Seeking advice from a trusted mentor, she sat down with her Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Lauren Foster, to discuss options. Wessels and Foster had often discussed starting a company to commercialize the IP they worked on but had never taken it further, in part because they were busy scientists and, like most academics, the commercialization process was unfamiliar to them.

“When I spoke with Lauren in late 2021 about starting a company, I expected the conversation to go the same way it had when we discussed it in the past,” says Wessels. “I wasn’t expecting her to say yes…  That’s essentially how AIMA Labs was born.”

Making a difference in women’s health

Wessels' research has included numerous projects built around understanding the vaginal microbiome, including how the bacteria in the microbiome relate to HIV susceptibility. But her main interest has always been endometriosis, specifically working to understand the biomarkers.

“My interest was always endometriosis and trying to make life better for people who were living with this condition. It’s the condition I focused on during my Ph.D. and I kept coming back to that and thinking, How can we move the needle forward for an enigmatic condition where there's a lack of research attention, sub-optimal treatment options and, oftentimes, basic understanding?”

While there is a lack of endometriosis research, Wessels says there isn’t a lack of people looking for the cause of their pelvic pain. 

“Although awareness of endometriosis is increasing, there is still a stigma around menstruation and pelvic pain,” she says. “People don’t speak freely about these topics, even with friends and family. But people are searching on the internet for why they have pain every month. Therefore, we’re aiming to develop a direct-to-consumer channel for our products to help people who are trying to find answers online.”

Creating a simpler and faster way to diagnose endometriosis

The delay in endometriosis diagnosis has multiple causes, from symptom overlap with other conditions to a lack of understanding among primary care physicians. AIMA Laboratories is working to fix this by developing an at-home endometriosis test kit that women can use to identify if they have the markers for the disease, before going to see their doctors.

“We want to empower the person who's suffering,” says Wessels. “Many women tell us that it takes a long time for them to find somebody who believes their pain. We want to put a test in their hands to empower them to take control over their health so that they can take the test and say, ‘there is a medical condition that is likely causing my symptoms.’ And then they can discuss the test result with their primary care provider and make a plan to move forward.” 

As with any health-tech startup, regulatory compliance in the United States and Canada is top of mind. AIMA Labs engaged a third-party company with extensive experience in product development and regulatory affairs to identify the regulatory steps required to commercialize the test kit.

“The path in the U.S. is a little bit clearer than in Canada,” says Wessels. “In Canada, in vitro diagnostics are a bit more of a grey area than in the U.S. With the guidance of partners, AIMA Labs now has a clear vision of the path to market and moving quickly to make this test available to Canadians and beyond.”

Finding help from Fierce Founders

In 2022, AIMA Laboratories participated in the Fierce Founders Uplift program. The three-to-five-month program is designed for women and non-binary founders from equity-deserving groups, who have a minimal viable product (MVP) and some traction. Startups receive $10,000 in non-matching funds and one-on-one advice from Communitech growth coaches to help take them from startup to market leader. 

AIMA Laboratories is now participating in the Fierce Founders Intensive Track program. Building on what they learned in Uplift, Wessels and her team are now working to build a customized growth plan that they can use to bring their test kit to market. Participating startups also have the chance to qualify for matching seed funds of $50,000 from the Federal Economic Development Agency of Southern Ontario. 

“These programs have been amazing in supporting our development, growth and knowledge base,” says Wessels. “We came into Communitech last year with very little business knowledge or experience. It's very much a result of Communitech and other incubator programs that we've been able to grow and succeed over the past year and a half.” 

During the Fierce Founders Intensive Track program, Wessels has focused on defining AIMA’s goals and timeline and breaking them down into manageable, achievable tasks. As research scientists, Wessels said she and Foster want to do everything but know that’s unrealistic. She says the Fierce Founders' growth coaches have helped them apply that same understanding as founders.

“The coaches have been great at helping channel our energy into key pathways targeting corporate development and steps to product launch, as opposed to looking at everything and trying to build it all at this early stage. They’re helping us focus on the specifics that will get us to market and become revenue generating.”

Beyond the mentor support, Wessels says the $10,000 in non-matching funds was also the first investment for the startup. 

“Uplift gave us $10,000 and we bootstrapped the heck out of that investment and survived almost an entire year by leveraging this funding to the max,” she says. “The investment from Communitech is the central reason that we got up and running. It’s how we hired our first employee.”

To learn more about AIMA Laboratories, visit aimalaboratories.com. To learn more about how Communitech helps founders start and scale their companies, visit Communitech.ca. The Fierce Founders Uplift and Intensive Track program are made possible thanks to the support of the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.

"Communitech helps tech-driven companies start, grow and succeed. Communitech was founded in 1997 by a group of entrepreneurs committed to making Waterloo Region a global innovation leader. At the time it was crazy talk, but somehow this community managed to pull it off. Today, Communitech is a public-private innovation hub that supports a community of more than 1400 companies — from startups to scale-ups to large global players. Communitech helps tech companies start, grow and succeed in three distinct ways: - Communitech is a place – the center of gravity for entrepreneurs and innovators. A clubhouse for building cool shit and great companies. - Communitech delivers programs – helping companies at all stages with access to capital, customers and talent. We are here to help them grow and innovate. - Communitech partners in building a world-leading ecosystem – making sure we have all the ingredients (and the brand) to go from a small startup to a global giant."

This website uses cookies to save your preferences, and track popular pages. Cookies ensure we do not require visitors to register, login, or share any identity information.