Hamilton’s had a strong health sector for decades. McMaster’s health programs and research are top flight. There has been plenty of top-down efforts by local institutions over the last 15 years to turn that strength into private sector job creation, be it biotech startups or software startups. Initiatives like GHBSN for example.
There hasn’t been a truly bottom-up effort though, at least to my knowledge, until now. Simon Woodside (@simon_woodside) put together a great team of folks that have been regularly organizing meetups to connect the health and tech/startup communities in Hamilton. The meetups have been highly successful, a firm from Toronto actually opened an office in the city after meeting the right talent at the inaugural event.
Check out the interview below with Simon Woodside, and consider coming out to a Hacking Health Hamilton event!
What is Hacking Health?
Hacking Health exists because there are these two communities, healthcare professionals and tech innovators, who rarely intersect. There is no existing forum for these two groups to meet. Medical workers often have problems that they would like solved with software or hardware, but they donāt know how to build the solutions. Tech innovators like programmers and entrepreneurs can build solutions, but they donāt know what problems to solve. Hacking Health gets them together in the same room and creates opportunities for them to work together.
Why is Hacking Health being done in Hamilton?
Hamilton is a healthcare hub. We have world-class research being done at McMaster, frequently cited in the international press, and an impressive array of hospitals and medical institutions which are the largest employer in the city. At the same time we have a growing tech community championed by organizations like Innovation Factory, Software Hamilton and supported by the city. Thereās a big opportunity here just waiting to happen.
Who should come out to Hacking Health events, and what can they expect to get out of them?
We have two kinds of events: meetups and hackathons.
The meetups are evening events where we invite speakers from the local area and from out of town to talk about what theyāre doing and demonstrate their work. For example recently a medical resident demonstrated an app that could make it significantly easier to treat people who have stents and balloons. We also had Giancarlo de Lio, a successful entrepreneur and investor from Toronto, come and talk about the companies that heās working with. Weāve seen both healthcare workers and tech entrepreneurs make important connections and even find jobs at our events, even though we only launched this year.
We are holding a weekend hackathon in February. This is an opportunity to create something real over a very intense and short period. Itās like starting up a new company, but compressed into about 48 hours. Anyone who has the innovation bug and is into healthcare should consider going.
How much of a health tech sector does Hamilton have now?
Itās pretty fledgling. There are some well-established Health IT projects like Clinical Connect and OSCAR, supported by the public sector. In terms of private innovation, itās still early days. Sound Options is a very interesting startup with clinically validated treatment for tinnitus out of McMaster. Geneyouinās genetic-testing backed app PillCheck has Hamilton connections. There are few other small or early-stage projects in the area, but overall the potential of our vast pool of health expertise has barely been tapped by the tech sector.
Why should we be trying to grow our health tech sector?
Thatās a great question, and it gets to the heart of why I got interested in running Hacking Health in Hamilton. Itās a matter of jobs and economy.
To start off with, I think itās important to know where we sit in comparison with rival communities from a tech perspective. Waterloo has a powerhouse tech sector and a lot of activity in hardware and software. Toronto has a broad tech community with no particular focus. There is strong healthcare research in Toronto, but health tech is fragmented between many competing organizations and companies.
I see innovators here in Hamilton looking for opportunities to create products. But, they are often struggling to find a niche. We need to find a deep seam that we can mine for unique creative opportunities that aren’t just me-too versions of a social app thatās already been created a thousand times in other places. A great way to find a solid niche is to hang around with the specialists of any industry. What kind of specialists do we have in abundance here? Well, what is it that makes Hamilton be Hamilton? Steel, art, and healthcare.
Why pursue healthcare in particular? Because healthcare is a specialization of tech that has enormous growth potential. Healthcare is projected to consume a third of US GDP by 2040. Health apps are doubling yearly. There are literally titanic market forces at work to shift care away from hospitals and institutions and back into the home and community to drive down costs. Fortunately, we are also on the cusp of a technological revolution that looks like it can accomplish that. Consumer wearables like Fitbit and Apple Watch are integrating sensors that go beyond step counting to tracking heart rhythms, calories usage, and blood oxygen levels.
What do we need to do to grow our health tech sector?
We have the medical expertise, and we have a growing tech community, so the next step is to merge them and build something great. We need broad-spectrum support, from our hospital networks HHS and St. Joes, from our educational institutions McMaster and Mohawk, from the city, from our tech innovation community. The beginning is all about connecting the health, tech, and entrepreneurial communities so that they can meet and put their combined skills to work.
What is your own background in health tech? What projects have you worked on recently?
My first iPhone app was a hearing that I created for a hearing aid company. Itās a screening tool only, but it actually produces professional-grade results. That was in 2009 ā since then my company Monolith Apps has worked on maybe a dozen mobile healthcare apps and cloud systems, including electronic health records, personal health, and professional training for pharmacists with a University of Waterloo professor. My latest project is a new startup called MedStack. Itās a cloud platform for healthcare apps that need to send personal health data to healthcare workers. Under our laws in Canada (and in the US and Europe) there are very stringent rules about how your health data has to be protected and encrypted. Itās a huge burden for an innovator, but a necessary one. We have created a complete set of cloud tools to lift as much of this burden as possible and let software and wearable makers focus on what they are good at.
Where do you see the broader health tech industry going in the years ahead?
We are seeing a massive democratization of healthcare. Like it or not we canāt continue with the current centralized model because as our population ages the costs rise exponentially. The good news is that we now have the technology to allow people to receive much of the same level of care at home. For example you can now purchase a Bluetooth-enabled blood-pressure cuff for about a hundred dollars that connects to a smartphone, collecting and monitoring that aspect of your health at the same level as would previously have required hospital-grade equipment.
I also see the integration of sensors not only in smartwatches but also in your thermostat, your car, your clothing, to integrate data to monitor and alert doctors and nurses when you show signs of worsening symptoms for chronic diseases and those at risk. This requires a lot of new technological infrastructure to be built, smart algorithms, clinical expertise, a lot of which we already have here in Hamilton.
What does Hacking Health Hamilton have planned for the future?
We have regular meetups scheduled for the fall, and a weekend hackathon planned for February. Sign up to our meetup group (meetup.com/Hacking-Health-Hamilton) to be notified about our events.
How can the community help you make Hacking Health a bigger success?
Spread the word. If youāre a tech innovator, consider the opportunities in healthcare. If you know a healthcare practitioner of any kind, from doctors and nurses to therapists and pharmacists, let them know about Hacking Health Hamilton.