Nurenyx participates in programs made possible with support from the Government of Canada to Queen’s University through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario and the Scale-up Platform Project.

“We are aiming to be the poster startup company for Queen’s.”

The line belongs to Jason Evans. He, together with John Okello and Palak Patel, helped found Nurenyx Inc., a startup created in Kingston and now relocated to Toronto, with a strong artificial-intelligence and health sciences orientation.

It’s a good line. Funny. And like so many jokes, part of what makes it funny is that it also happens to be true. In the world of startups, Nurenyx is a standout. They aren’t fully up and running, not yet, and they certainly aren’t a household name. The journey in front of them is still long, but so far, they have taken all the right steps. They are creative, they work and communicate well together. Above all, they know that to succeed they needed help. As it turned out, Queen’s Partnerships and Innovations was the place they could find it.

Headshot photos of founders of Nurenyx
Founders of Nurenyx (L-R): John Okello, Jason Evans and Palak Patel. Photo credit: Nurenyx.

Nurenyx has an idea. Modern medical research depends on clinical trials. Generally (although with COVID we’ve recently lived through an exception to this) no new drug or treatment gains approval until it has been thoroughly tested on a controlled group of patients. Now here's an alarming fact to consider: more than eighty percent of all clinical trials fail. Not because the drug or treatment doesn’t work, but significantly because the participants drop out of the program. The reasons can vary – they can’t take the time off work, they’re expected to travel to a distant location to have the drug administered, whatever. More recently, COVID restrictions have made it even harder for many people to participate. The three partners think they have a solution: don’t take the patient to trial; take the trial to the patient by “virtualizing most of” it. “Given the technology most people are using now,” says Patel, “why not utilize that to conduct trials?” To that end, they are working on an online platform, accessible across multiple device endpoints including desktops, mobile devices or tablets, even by extended reality (XR) headsets for a richer experience, that would allow patients enrolled in a trial to log onto a site or connect through an app and communicate with clinical trial staff about the doses they are taking or the effects they’re experiencing. “For the first time,” says Patel, “we’re putting the participants in the middle of the trial, all while helping helping invesitigators to get better data.” Patients could also use the system to contact a 24/7 centralized knowledge bot trained on medical information that would answer their questions about side-effects and the trial itself. Clinicians and researchers would benefit from such a system as well, says Patel. “It offers trials real-time data collection. If there’s a side effect, the patient can report it to the bot, which would relay that to the doctor.”

That’s a great idea. And as Okello says, “All startups begin with an idea.” But what makes the Nurenyx story so interesting, and what it tells you about the process of building a viable startup, however, is that this was not their original idea. It was the product of their experiences while working with Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI).

Okello and Patel initially approached Mike Wells, one of QPI’s Partnerships Development Officers, with an idea for using molecular tools to diagnose and predict prostate cancer. The two had helped develop this at the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute (QCRI), where Patel was a PhD student and Okello, a lab manager and a research associate. (Evans came along later, introduced to Okello through a mutual acquaintance he’d met while doing the Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at Queen’s Smith School of Business, part of his efforts to learn enough about business to monetize their molecular idea. “He had his ideas in artificial intelligence,” says Okello, “and we were in the biomolecular field. We felt we could work together.”)

QPI is helping them to secure two patents for their innovative cancer invention, and armed with these, they joined QPI’s Startup Runway Program, which they hoped would help them “spin out a company,” as Okello puts it, to develop the intellectual property they had created. Unfortunately, it quickly became evident that their idea was not set enough to go forward.

That might have been the end of it. Instead, says Okello, “We sat down and said let’s continue to work together, but on another project, in digital health along the lines of what Jason had already started on his own.” (Evans had previous experience with AI, holographic imaging and the specialty pharmacy industry.) Combined with what Okello and Patel knew about clinical testing from their time at QCRI (and in Okello’s case at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital), they might have something. Armed with the seed of a new idea, they enrolled in QPI’s Wings program, which is intended for startups with an idea or possible product but yet no revenue.

A critical part of the Wings experience is figuring out who your potential customers are and what they need. Says Okello: “We talked to multiple stakeholders in this area [clinical testing]. We identified five key problems they had, and we further developed Nurenyx’s base technologies to answer those problems.”

“They learned the lesson,” says Rick Boswell, QPI’s Assistant Director of Programs and Operations, who has worked with Nurenyx since then. “They were not on the right path, but they managed to pivot.” Pivot so successfully that in March 2021, on the strength of what they developed with Nurenyx, they were invited to participate in a virtual event organized by QPI with the federal government’s Boston Canadian Technology Accelerator. Called the Market Testing Lab, the cooperative venture provided four Kingston-area startups with a five-day virtual introduction to the Boston health sciences ecosystem spread over two weeks.

“They were a perfect fit for Boston,” says Boswell. And for their part, the trio praises the experience. Pitch expert Linda Plano looked at their pitch deck and “just rolled up her sleeves,” says Evans. “She got down to the nuts and bolts of our pitch and just tore it apart. She kept going over the weekend and then sent it back to us. It was complexly unexpected.” They were also connected with a possible mentor, Laurie Halloran of Halloran Consulting Group, who was already introducing them to people in Boston working in what Okello terms “the clinical trials space” before the program ended. They hope these contacts become potential investors, future customers – or both. Virtually and simultaneously with their Boston experience, the three Nurenyx principals participated in another QPI offering, Go-to-Market, which Okello praises for helping them further hone their approach to potential customers.

The next goal for Nurenyx is to raise sufficient funds from government or non-government sources to work on improving the prototype of their platform, which they are currently testing with potential partners. They hope QPI may be able to help them. “We have had preliminary discussions with Mike Wells, our adviser at QPI,” says Okello. “He has started making introductions.”

Says Patel: “There are opportunities that we may not see but that they can identify. To have a connection like that is helpful.”

They remain actively part of the QPI startup community. “That’s one of the advantages of the Wings program,” says Evans. “We got to develop this camaraderie, and we are constantly meeting with other companies and looking for partnerships.”

What makes Nurenyx such a standout out as a startup, says Rick Boswell, is “in a nutshell, they paid attention to what we were trying to teach them. They absorbed the lessons and considered new opportunities. They are a team that works and communicates well together.”

“We are forever so grateful to all the team at QPI,” says Okello. “For their invaluable support, for their believing in us. We look forward to continuing our relationship.”