Imagine a tool that would allow a track coach to analyze the sprinting of a young athlete when they are running flat out, right down to the subtlest nuances – how their foot lands, how their leg muscles tense and release, where their stride might be modified and improved. All using nothing more than video cameras and a sophisticated computer program.
Now imagine that same tool helping scientists to understand human movement more fully – or create a memorable animated figure in a blockbuster film that precisely mimics the motion. That’s the tantalizing goal behind CEO Scott Selbie’s company, Theia Markerless. A goal that Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) is helping him to realize.
A former scientist with the United States National Institute of Health (NIH), Selbie has connections to Queen’s stretching back to his days as a postdoctoral fellow there in 1990. Eighteen years ago he moved back to Kingston to run a company that he had spun off from his work at NIH, creating software that has medical applications in assessing movement disorders and evaluating performance in sports.
An adjunct professor of engineering at Queen’s, through his long-time collaboration with the Dean of Engineering, he had connected with and hired Marcus Brown, an engineering graduate student. Marcus subsequently expressed interest in using artificial intelligence and computer vision to study human movement. While the applications for studying human movement were similar to what Selbie himself had developed, what Marcus Brown and later Chris Saliba (another Queen’s engineering graduate student) were creating was quite innovative. Current systems for this sort of analysis, the type Selbie has used throughout his career, have one major drawback, as he points out: “You have to put something on someone, markers or sensors,” to gather your data. Covering a person in such sensors is time consuming, error prone, and hinders their freedom of movement, which in turn reduces the system’s ability to analyze “natural” movement reliably. Marcus and Chris were working on a system where the subject’s movements are recorded with an array of video cameras and then this video data is processed using a combination of artificial intelligence, machine vision, and biomechanical analyses. Selbie was impressed. “I was willing to convince my company to back this in its baby steps,” Named for the Titan goddess of light, Theia Markerless was born.
While Selbie’s own company had enjoyed modest success over the years, he realized that he was facing something different with Theia Markerless – the possibility of very rapid growth. “That was an entirely new experience for me.”
He knew he’d need help. Fortunately, he was offered the opportunity to participate in QPI’s High-impact Mentorship program. Through it, he connected with a QPI Mentor, Peter Becke, a private-equity investor, among other things, who holds both law and MBA degrees from Queen’s. The two began speaking weekly on the telephone beginning in fall 2020. “His job is to provide perspective when I feel overwhelmed,” jokes Selbie.
“It was important to speak to someone who wasn’t in the midst of it all,” says Selbie, someone with whom, he could talk about “what we were trying to do as a company.” The two continue to speak weekly and have since been joined, as the company has expanded, by Marcus Brown (now Theia Markerless’s president) and Scott Runte (CEO for LaunchLab and now Theia Markerless’s “virtual CFO”). From those early sessions their discussions have evolved from the bare bones of running a company “to defining a corporate strategy that reflects the exciting opportunities created by our product and the scope of our ambitions.”
Selbie understood that Theia Markerless faced one particular daunting challenge. People had promised markerless systems before like theirs but not delivered. “We couldn’t assume that delivering a technically sound and innovative product to a market that had been burned would organically lead to success.” Their product would not sell itself. Two lucky breaks, thanks to QPI, were access to a program titled “Go To Market Masterclass“ run by Isabelle Perreault, followed up with another marketing course titled “Wings 2.0.” It was just, he says, “so timely.” The Wings program was a mix of seminars and one-on-one counselling, delivered virtually thanks to COVID, by Elza Seregelyi and Andrew Jackson.
“The one-on-one consulting was fantastic” says Selbie. He worked largely with program co-director Andrew Jackson, who, he says “had experience that was close enough to what we are trying to do that he was a tremendous help in formulating our ideas.”
“The intensity of the program was almost overwhelming,” says Selbie. “But the timing couldn’t have been better. The culmination of Wings is presenting a business pitch to imaginary investors. This process painfully revealed how far we needed to go, but the encouragement and advice we received gave us the impetus to begin the restructuring of our corporate strategy.”
Now a little more than a year and a half old, Theia Markerless has 20 employees on the payroll and plans to double their revenues again year after year.
Looking forward, Selbie understands that their current market concentration on customers in the life sciences, who are deeply involved in the study of human movement, will evolve to increasingly include customers in sports performance, and even computer games. Whatever the future brings, the connection with the life sciences has benefits beyond the financial – universities are a great source for creative visual data featuring a broad spectrum of human movements, providing a fantastic set of tests that can be used to develop the Theia Markerless algorithms further.
QPI is helping them prepare for the future stages of their development. Working on medical applications of their software in the United States requires receiving FDA approval. QPI was previously able to help Theia Markerless on IP questions, now their recently hired regulatory expert is helping the company navigate through what Selbie terms “pages and pages” of material to be digested and filled out before the FDA can grant its approval.
“What’s going on in Kingston and at Queen’s astounds me,” he says. “I never saw anything like this 18 years ago when I moved back. What QPI has created is absolutely amazing for a company like us.”
QPI offers the Wings program as part of the Scale-Up Platform Project, the High-impact Mentorship program under the Scale-Up Platform Project and the Health Innovation (HI YGK) Project, and regulatory advisory services as part of its Growth Catalyst program under the HI YGK Project. The Scale-Up Platform Project is led by Invest Ottawa in Eastern Ontario and includes Queen’s as a regional partner; the HI YGK Project is led by the City of Kingston and includes Queen’s as a local partner. Both Projects are supported with funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.