Queen’s University researchers have gained recognition for the discoveries they have made in medicine, engineering, and the sciences, and innovations that have improved the lives of people around the world. To make sure that the university and the public continue to benefit from this work, Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) promotes the discoveries of university researchers who have assigned their intellectual property to Queen’s and whose work is ready for licensing and commercial application. QPI leads the commercialization processes, including the protection of the intellectual property, the creation of strategies to further its development, the search for funders, partners, and licensees, the negotiation of terms, the management of relationships, the collection of licensing and royalty revenues, and their disbursement to inventors.
Coaching, connection, and challenge: these are a few of the takeaways for three women entrepreneurs advancing health innovations who participated in the Women’s Entrepreneurship Program in March. The weeklong certificate program, led by the Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization (OBIO®) Women in Health Initiative (WiHI) and the Institute for Biomedical Entrepreneurship (IBE), was held in Toronto and aimed to empower participants with skills to bring their ideas from concept to market. WiHI is designed to increase the participation and advancement of women in the life sciences sector.
Founded in 2009, OBIO® is a not-for-profit, membership-based organization engaged in strategy, programming, policy development, and advocacy to further the commercialization of human health technologies. Queen’s University joined OBIO® in April 2021. In January 2022, QPI participated in the Early Technology Showcase at the 2022 OBIO® Investment Summit, and highlighted the work of Queen’s researchers related to a blood-based cancer diagnostic , and an eye-tracking test to diagnose and manage a central nervous system disease.
As a member of OBIO®, Queen’s can offer startup companies exclusive opportunities to network, raise capital, build the workforce, and accelerate commercialization. QPI encouraged the women founders of three Kingston-based health science companies (LenSense™, Dynamiris™, and mDETECT™), each of which has a license with Queen’s to commercialize technologies invented by Queen’s researchers, to apply to the OBIO-IBE Women’s Entrepreneurship Program. All three founders were selected to participate in the program, which brought together academic entrepreneurs, early-stage, women-led or co-led health care startups, mentors and investors for connection, collaboration, motivation, business, and personal growth.
“QPI has been working closely with the researchers for the past 18+ months to develop and implement strategies to commercialize these exciting technologies,” says Dr. Michael Wells, a Queen’s Partnerships Development Officer. “Our support has been multi-faceted, including investment, matched by Queen’s, from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario via the Toronto Innovation Acceleration Partners (TIAP) and its Venture Builder Program, the attraction of co-founders and mentors, guidance re: incorporation, patent services, incubation and acceleration programs, and various other Go-to-Market services. The Women’s Entrepreneurship Program represented a great opportunity for our early-stage founders to build their foundations following the completion of QPI’s Wings Accelerator.”
“The introduction of subject matter experts and professionals in the relevant fields was very helpful,” says Dr. Tanzila Afrin, co-founder of LenSense™, a company that was created to commercialize a technology developed in Professor Yongjun Lai’s lab at Queen’s. The LenSense device is a contact lens with an embedded AI microfluidic microchannel. A smartphone camera measures movement of the microfluid within the channel enabling accurate calculation of the intraocular pressure (IOP) within a patient’s eye(s). This method enables at-home IOP measurements, and can help in earlier diagnosis while also improving treatment efficacy for glaucoma patients. “The OBIO® staff worked very hard to make every session as useful as possible.”
Dr. Afrin recalls one of the mentors, in particular, for their assistance during the program, “Curtis Sprouse from Eureka Connect stands out for his enthusiasm in explaining the entrepreneurial mindset among the mentors. Additionally, he introduced me to the right connection, which is crucial for LenSense's™ success.”
The program culminated with a pitch event, where participants had the opportunity to present their business ideas to the panel of OBIO® investors.
Dr. Irsa Wiginton, co-founder of mDETECT™, pitched to three venture capitalists (VCs) at the end of the week and received promising feedback. mDETECT™ is commercializing a novel liquid biopsy (blood test), developed by Queen’s Professor Christopher Mueller, that is a more sensitive method of detecting and monitoring the presence of cancer.
“All of the VCs voted that they would meet with mDETECT™. We had a follow-up meeting with one VC who is keen on following the clinical trial results,” says Dr. Wiginton. “I got great feedback from them, and they all asked excellent questions, which I was prepared for, meaning that my coaching during the week helped me prepare some of my answers.”
That sentiment is echoed by Dr. Janis Kan, co-founder of Dynamiris™, who also attended the certificate program, “The pitch event at the end of the program was a great opportunity. We received excellent coaching from a variety of mentors throughout the week, and the representatives from the VCs gave very useful feedback. It was encouraging to see the interests from the VCs in our technology, and their questions really helped me define our focus and next steps for our venture.”
Dynamiris™ is developing a fast, objective, and low-cost eye-tracking tool, developed in the lab of Queen’s Professor Douglas Munoz, that clinicians can implement in their office to flag patients earlier for further testing, which can then lead to earlier treatment and better outcomes for patients.
In addition to mentorship and pitch coaching, each of the founders found value in connecting with other women in the life sciences space.
“We learned from each other's struggles and how to overcome them during the journey,” says Dr. Afrin. “Furthermore, different types of startup ideas contributed to a broader knowledge base, which I found to be very helpful in developing my own company.”
Dr. Wiginton adds, “The environment was great, and all the female founders were happy to connect. I gained lots of connections and I’m still in conversation with a few.”
The experience left a favourable impression with each of the participants.
“It is difficult to define a single takeaway from the program, as we covered many topics,” says Dr. Kan. “The program highlighted how there are many steps to entrepreneurship, but there are resources out there, and we are not alone in the journey."
“I would definitely recommend the program to other women founders,” says Dr. Wiginton. “Learning about the OBIO® group and the type of resources they can provide a startup has been invaluable, and we now have information and connections that we can return to, if we need it.”
Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation has provided programs and services to Dynamiris, LenSense, and mDETECT with support from the Federal Agency of Economic Development for Southern Ontario via the TIAP Venture Builder Program, the ScaleUp Platform Project, the WE-CAN Project, and the Health Innovation Kingston (HI YGK) Project.