The Queen's Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) team develops and facilitates partnerships with industry, governments, not-for-profit organizations, and other academic institutions to advance the research enterprise at Queen’s and the commercialization and protection of inventions, and to strengthen the regional innovation ecosystem in Kingston and Eastern Ontario.

The QPI team supports the University’s strategic goal to build community partnerships and fully embed Queen’s in the community. With support from external funding, the QPI team offers numerous services, resources, and programs to support entrepreneurs, including those from Queen’s, and to accelerate the growth of startups and small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) within Kingston and Eastern Ontario.

A Queen’s research discovery has the potential to become a game-changer for breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. The technology, developed by Professor Christopher Mueller (Queen’s Cancer Research Institute), is a new cancer detection method, based on the presence of circulating tumour DNA in the blood, called mDETECT (methylation DETEction of Circulating Tumour DNA). He has created a liquid biopsy (blood test) that is a more sensitive method of detecting and monitoring the presence of cancer. The mDETECT test allows for real time monitoring of a patient’s response to chemotherapy to optimize treatment. Also, by detecting the relapse of cancer early it increases the success of therapy which is much higher if the disease is more limited.

With the help of Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI), Dr. Mueller had started working to out-license this healthcare innovation so it could be put into practice, with its added benefit as an economical alternative to current methods.

“The only way to move the technology forward is to commercialize it,” says Dr. Mueller. “We have something that could help women tomorrow if we could offer it to them– it has been proven in patients and we demonstrated that it worked exceptionally well.”

Irsa Shoukat accepting a cheque at a pitch competition
Dr. Irsa Shoukat accepting top prize at the Kingston Syracuse Pathway pitch competition.

In February 2022 and with support from QPI, Dr. Mueller had the opportunity to represent Queen’s University at the OBIO Investment Summit as part of the Early Technology Showcase, which featured the most promising projects and early spinoffs from 10 of Canada’s leading research institutions and health organizations. This initial outreach was received well with a number of Venture Capital groups interested in learning more about mDETECT.

The commercialization process has recently ramped up with the incorporation of Dr. Mueller’s company, eponymously called mDETECT Inc., named after the test. The incorporation and launch of mDETECT was made possible by the Toronto Innovation Acceleration Partners (TIAP), a not-for-profit organization with a mandate to bring members’ most promising research breakthroughs to market. In 2020, TIAP invited Queen’s to join its new Venture Builder Program, an initiative led by TIAP with funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency of Southern Ontario. Combined with the requisite matching contribution from Queen’s, the Venture Builder Program funding has enabled QPI to encourage, support, and guide the establishment and launch of three health-care companies to commercialize intellectual property assigned to Queen’s.

Dr. Michael Wells, Partnerships Development Officer with QPI, is responsible for the TIAP program at Queen’s, and played a crucial role in helping to establish the three companies currently in the program. He provides mentorship to the founders, and guides them to a variety of resources. He was integral in encouraging mDETECT to participate in the Wings program.

Co-founder of mDETECT, Dr. Irsa Shoukat is a recent Queen’s PhD graduate in Biochemistry. She is working full-time for the company as a postdoctoral fellow focused on business development.

“I’m looking forward to bringing this technology to the market,” says Dr. Shoukat. “I have the technical background, and I look forward to applying it in the development of the business, attending pitch competitions, and reaching out to potential collaborators and partners for the company.”

Dr. Shoukat has jumped right into the role. With connections from QPI, she attended Queens X TandemLaunch in the spring of 2022, a new program that enables Queen’s graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in STEM to gain valuable entrepreneurial training and real-world exposure to the entrepreneurial journey. She has also been involved in the WE-CAN Project, attending various workshops, and in the summer of 2022, mDETECT completed the Queen’s Startup Runway Wings Acceleration program.

“Wings was good for setting up interview questions for customer discovery and helping to define how our company differentiates from the others in the market,” says Dr. Shoukat.

The program is aimed at startups in the early, pre-revenue, stages of development to give founders the tools and guidance they need to evaluate the feasibility of their business idea, determine their value proposition, and to begin developing a working business model.

mDETECT is starting to see some traction from their initial efforts. In May 2022, Dr. Mueller was named the runner-up at the 2022 Mitacs Invention to Innovation (i2I) Skills Training Final Pitch Competition, receiving a $2,500 prize from the Charles Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship, and in June 2022, Dr. Shoukat pitched and took the top spot at the Kingston Syracuse Pathway pitch competition, taking home a prize of $5,000.

As for the next steps for mDETECT, the company needs to find investment partners to fund clinical trials to validate the research findings.

“We are starting with targeting breast cancer,” says Dr. Mueller. “But the application is far-reaching. My team has already developed eight mDETECT tests for different cancers, including uveal melanoma, prostate, pancreatic, ovarian and lung.”

Dr. Wells, agrees. “This is truly a platform technology with significant advantages over existing liquid biopsy technologies. Breast cancer will be just the first in a series of successful clinical molecular diagnostics.”

Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation is involved as the lead or partner in several projects enabled with support from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario). Wings is offered through the Scale-Up Platform, an initiative supported by FedDev Ontario and led by Invest Ottawa in Eastern Ontario and in which QPI is a regional partner. The WE-CAN Project, led by QPI, has been made possible with funding from the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) Ecosystem Fund to strengthen capacity within the entrepreneurship ecosystem and close gaps in service for women entrepreneurs. The HI YGK Project, supported by FedDev Ontario, is led by the city of Kingston and aims to encourage health-innovation focused startups and SMEs to develop and grow in Kingston. The Venture Builder Program, also supported by FedDev Ontario, is led by TIAP and enables the establishment of up to four healthcare newcos that are commercializing intellectual property from Queen’s research.