The Health Technology Career Niche
By: Marmendia R. Meester, MSc
Technological innovation in health care is a hot market. We are now able to track and share our heart function through a smartwatch, study implants to redirect neuronal signals in the spinal cord after a spinal injury, attempt gene editing to prevent Malaria and HIV spread, and begin designing a pill to scan our gut for colon cancer. One thing is for sure – a larger skilled workforce is needed to accommodate this rise of health care technology innovation and commercialization.
Health technology entrepreneurship is a multidisciplinary field, undervalued by the millennial generation of (bio)medical graduates. Job prospects in health care and academia are highly competitive; consequently, graduate students need to become more aware of alternative career possibilities before they set foot into Convocation Hall. According to IBISWorld, Canada expects a 14% increase in job availability in research and development in the biotechnology industry over the next five years.
Professor John Bell is a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, and is spearheading the development and commercialization of oncolytic virus therapy for metastatic cancers. He agrees that a tremendous opportunity lies ahead for biomedical graduates who work hard, seize opportunities, adapt to change and are open to learning new ways of tackling challenging problems. “It is clear that North America is moving towards a knowledge based economy and there will be a demand for scientists with expertise in, and knowledge of, biological systems.” Dr. Bell has been successful in bioengineering and the commercialization of oncolytic viral immunotherapy that has shown astonishing results in treating cancer in select patients suffering from melanoma, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. He cofounded Jennerex Biotherapeutics Inc., which is now owned by the Korean firm SillaJen. When asked about the skillset required for graduates to succeed in health care biotechnology, Bell replied: “It may be important for graduate students to expand their skill base beyond what is traditional for an academic career. For example, gaining an understanding of project management, quality, and regulatory issues as they pertain to product commercialization could position a trainee to be able to move into industry and ultimately to a strategic leadership position. In my career, I have found great value in ‘team science’ and certainly to commercialize discoveries and work in the industrial setting, it is critical to be able to work within teams of individuals with complementary skills.”
Cory Blumenfeld, Chief Operations Officer at DashMD, very much agrees. “I wouldn’t have gotten to this stage without the help of others. This community is all about helping each other.” Cory is a U of T graduate alumnus at the Institute of Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation and co-founded DashMD: a health care app to improve patient self-care after they have been discharged from a hospital. “The major challenge is to find the right people for your team. Group dynamics are essential – you need to organize and understand each other’s roles in a way that complements your skills. Don’t spread yourself thin, it’s better to be focused.”
While working on his Master’s thesis, Cory found there were many challenges to face when it comes to sustaining a health innovation product. “We did not know [3 years ago] that there was an option to become a health care innovator. Many discoveries are being kept within the containment of the labs, where they remain in the research field; whereas these ideas might be very valuable [with widespread commercialization].” Academia is still very traditional in the sense that innovative concepts generally do not move beyond the research organization. “How do we allow all these organizations, which traditionally do not innovate, to commercialize their ideas?” Now that resources are available, there is no longer an excuse to neglect introducing an innovative mindset in the core of academia and health care. “There are governmental innovation funding programs,” says Blumenfeld. Cory Blumenfled and Zack Fisch Rothbart themselves, as start-up founders of DashMD, benefited from ‘The Next 36’ accelerator program. “Force yourself to be out there, at the right place, at the right time. There are start-up mixers, accelerators and incubators all around Toronto. You can’t be afraid of putting yourself out there, and taking advantage of all these opportunities.”
Within the GTA, the MaRS Discovery District is a major example of a medical innovation accelerator. The MaRS Innovation platform is a Toronto-based community that facilitates entrepreneurship and commercialization in health care technology. Viraj Mane was involved in assessing the market potential of early-stage health technology commercialization for 3-4 years at MaRS and others, until he joined Ontario Genomics. “Find a way to contribute to a field you want to build expertise in. When you have an idea, invest your time and energy to work on it.” Inspired by an article on phototherapy for infant hyperbilirubinemia in a medical journal sticking out of his wife’s purse, Viraj thought of a similar principle to be applied as an extracorporeal medical device to treat the disease in adults. “My idea was rejected when I reached out to a genomics clinic, where I heard that a curative treatment already exists.” says Mane, “I learned my limitation as a lab researcher, without specific [clinical] field experience.” Yet, Viraj strongly believes that you do not need to become a multi-disciplinary scholar to be an innovator. “I did my own prototyping and proof-of-concept analyses without formal training. With the internet, all the knowledge resources are available. All you have to do is to invest your time and energy to work on it.” Mane added: “Biology and medicine innovations are very lucrative, but you have to set your mind and passion to it, and devote your life to it. You should live within the high-risk innovation ecosystem because you want to, not because you’re forced to.” With that mindset, Viraj has now obtained a US patent to apply his medical device to stabilize electrolytes in whole blood of patients exhibiting hyperbilirubinemia, a concept that he developed along with haematologist Dr. Edward Wong. Together with students from Ryerson University, he will soon start prototyping and working towards clinical application, and is happy to provide his students with hands-on experience in product validation, licensing, and approaching companies. “As life sciences graduate students, you are being exposed to a demanding analytical field,” he adds, “you’re able to construct your thoughts, analyze a concept, and produce an end-product – qualities that employers appreciate in graduate students.”
“It’s what researchers do!” Cory Blumenfeld emphasizes, “There is a need for partnerships between health care institutions and research institutions that can provide that expertise. We [life science graduate students] know where to find the field experts, and how to acquire information. We have to change the traditional mindset; there is more than academia. You can be an entrepreneur, and you can innovate.”
Are you curious about exploring career opportunities in health innovation and entrepreneurship? On February 22nd 2017 the HIT (Health. Innovation. Technology.) Unconference is offering a unique mix of talks, workshops, demonstrations, and a panel discussion. Speakers and panelists include chief executives and founders, such as Cory Blumenfeld, that range from early-stage start-ups to established technology companies with media coverage. Visit www.HITUnconference.org for more information and register for a free ticket.