The future of healthcare is changing for the better with novel medical technologies emerging at a record pace. One such technology developed by a UBC startup in recent years has made remarkable strides in bridging the gap between research and commercialization. UBC’s Institute for Computing, Information, and Cognitive Systems (ICICS) and entrepreneurship @UBC (e @UBC) helped make it happen.
Budding entrepreneurs approaching e @UBC for mentoring advice soon learn that “market discovery” is all-important. They may have a great idea and early adopters for a product, but success will elude them if they do not uncover and address unmet needs in the market. NZ Technologies (NZTech) Founder and CEO, Dr. Nima Ziraknejad, learned this lesson quickly when he embarked on an entrepreneurial path after completing his PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering at UBC. With a newly minted company and lab space provided by ICICS, Nima became an industry supporter of an ICICS multidisciplinary smart home research project in a theme that focused on applications of his machine vision, robotics, and learning algorithm expertise. This experience together with his background in the mining, oil and gas, and automotive sectors raised his profile sufficiently to attract the attention in 2013 of Dr. Behrang Homayoon, who was then doing his residency in interventional radiology at Vancouver General and UBC Hospitals. Dr. Homayoon and his supervisor Dr. David Liu contacted NZTech to see if the company could develop a touchless interface for manipulating radiological images during image-guided operations.
Normally, the physician must leave the operating room (OR) to view images, using a mouse and keyboard, which interrupts their focus and requires them to re-sterilize before returning to the OR. It also prolongs the operation and thus patient recovery times. Uninterrupted surgeon focus is key to successful surgery; to preserve it and avoid leaving the OR, they will sometimes take new radiological images during the operation that essentially duplicate preoperative images. However, this exposes the patient to additional radiation, which has attendant health risks. Finally, the need to re-scrub before re-entering the theatre also increases the cost of consumables, such as gloves, gowns, masks, and head coverings.
Nima was quick to pivot and tackle this end-user driven challenge. Collaborating with the clinical team, NZTech developed TIPSO™(Touchless Interaction with Picture Archiving and Communication Systems (PACS) in Sterile Operations), which allows practitioners to touchlessly interact with radiological images in the OR, by projecting the necessary image manipulation controls onto the surgical drape. The practitioner hovers his/her finger over the projected icons to control the images in an intuitive and ergonomically friendly manner, while remaining at the surgical bedside.
With the help of the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) and e @UBC, NZTech developed a validated business model, marketing materials, and a sound corporate strategy, which attracted investors and secured government funding. As Nima says, “e @UBC provided me with invaluable guidance in taking NZTech to the next stage. But the initial support of ICICS and NRC IRAP was crucial.” In fact, NZTech was an early venture to be supported by ICICS, which now houses HATCH, UBC’s incubator for tech-based startups.
Fast Forward to Today
Over the past two years, NZTech has expanded its market and built its commercial presence in Canada and the United States. With a firm foundation in the interventional radiology domain, NZTech has now validated its TIPSO™ technology for application in cardiothoracic, neuro-interventional, orthopaedic, gastrointestinal and craniofacial/plastic surgeries. The company’s geographical footprint has grown from hospitals in the Lower Mainland to 14 major medical institutions across North America. Of note, NZTech has signed agreements with Stanford University and the University of Miami to conduct clinical research, beginning in late 2018.
TIPSO has revolutionized interactions with radiological images during our image-guided operations. It deservedly represents the next generation of human-machine interaction in the operating room, where precision and time saving are key to successful patient care and safety.
NZTech now has two devices on offer, a portable wireless version that can be operated within a sterile bag (TIPSO AirPad™) and an advanced version of the original, TIPSO™ Beam, both of which can be customized to meet different clinical constraints. The company also now has partnerships with specialty medical device distributors in Canada and the U.S. to penetrate the targeted markets.
After rigorous testing, NZTech has achieved pre-qualification status in the Build in Canada Innovation Program (BCIP), a competitive federal funding initiative that helps accelerate commercialization of promising technologies by covering the costs of early market integration. The program will place TIPSO™ devices in hospitals in the Vancouver Coastal Health, Fraser Health, and Interior Health authorities, allowing the company to solidify its position in the BC market and work toward becoming an international hub, with local institutions, for clinical human-machine interaction R&D and education.
As an engineer with a new idea, it’s tempting to stride forward with development and then hope someone will find a use for the product. Instead, we recognized the unique opportunity to work directly with doctors and so we were able to design something truly useful for the medical space. This remains the most important factor in our success to date.
NZTech has secured investment from two rounds of seed financing in the past two years and ongoing support from the Government of Canada, particularly NRC IRAP. The company has grown from a 2-person lab space in ICICS to a downtown Vancouver office with 12 full-time employees. As surgical practice universally moves toward minimal invasiveness and image guidance, the need for touchless image navigation is expected to increase at an accelerated rate. NZTech is well positioned to assume a leadership role in this space and have an influential impact in advancing modern medicine.