On September 30, St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation hosted its annual Angels Den, a research funding and entrepreneurship competition structured in the style of the popular game show Dragons’ Den. This year, the event was streamed virtually and consisted of six competing teams of medical scientists from St. Michael’s Hospital.

The ultimate victors were Dr. Kieran McIntyre and Dr. Darren Yuen for their work on post-COVID-19 lung scarring screening, Dr. Karen Cross for her bedsore-fighting handheld tool, and Dr. Jane Batt for her smart garments that prevent muscle decay. All four physicians are specialists at St. Michael’s Hospital, as well as U of T faculty.

The teams competed for the Keenan COVID-19 Research Award — a pandemic-focused award worth $150,000 — the Odette Innovative Health Award — aimed at promoting accessible health care and worth $150,000 —and the People’s Choice Award — awarded by a popular vote among viewers and worth $50,000. None of the teams walked away empty-handed though, as every project that didn’t win a top prize was still supported with $25,500 in funding.

The contestants were judged by a panel of three celebrity judges: Joe Mimran and Michele Romanow — two former ‘dragons’ on Dragons’ Den — and Vinay Virmani — Chief Commercial Officer of Uninterrupted, a site for top athletes to share their stories — as well as more than 50 online, offsite jurors.

Post-COVID-19 lung treatment

McIntyre, an assistant professor in U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a respirologist at St. Michael’s Hospital, and Yuen, an assistant professor in U of T’s Faculty of Medicine and a nephrologist at St. Michael’s Hospital, won the Keenan COVID-19 Research Award. Their project sought to screen lung scarring in COVID-19 survivors who continue to exhibit symptoms after recovery.

McIntyre and Yuen helped establish the COVID Lung Clinic, where recovering COVID-19 patients are treated for symptoms such as breathlessness and lung scarring. They came up with the idea of assessing lung scarring efficiently with a bedside, handheld ultrasound tool that is safer and more compact than its alternatives. 

In an interview with The Varsity, McIntyre said that the Angels Den funding had already allowed him and Yuen to kickstart their project and that the newest version of their device had just been approved. 

McIntyre and Yuen hope that their project will help eliminate the need for COVID-19 survivors to continue being tested. They look to gather real-time data on past patients to make health care services more efficient and safely physically-distanced during the pandemic.

Battling bedsores

Cross, an assistant professor in U of T’s Faculty of Medicine and a reconstructive and aesthetic surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital, was the winner of the Odette Innovative Health Award. Her project addressed the bedsore, or pressure wound, epidemic in long-term and elderly hospital patients.

After experiencing a close call with a family member and dealing with a death related to pressure wounds, Cross was inspired to design Skin Imaging for Pressure Wounds (SkIP): a handheld device that uses infrared light to look beneath the skin. It additionally interfaces with a smartphone app that can be used by non-medical professionals, including any bedside caretakers, to detect whether a patient is at risk of developing pressure wounds.

During the Angels Den live stream, Cross said that she seeked to use the funding to immediately put the device through trials before moving to manufacturing and commercialization. Manufacturing and distribution of SkIP would take place through MIMOSA Diagnostics, which she co-founded.

Smart garments for muscle decay

Batt, an associate professor in U of T’s Faculty of Medicine and a respirologist at St. Michael’s Hospital, had her project selected for the People’s Choice Award. Her pitch featured smart garments that utilize artificial intelligence to stimulate decaying muscles in critically ill patients. Roughly 250,000 Canadians are admitted to intensive care units (ICU) every year, and many potentially face muscle decay due to inactivity.

What sets Batt’s garment apart from its commercially available competitors is its ability to use sensors that can be programmed to treat many ICU patients at once in a customized way. She explained that the currently available muscle decay solution, Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation, is not practical since it is not generally economically accessible. 

Batt explained that the smart garments were currently being prototyped and that the prize money would enable her team to complete development, file for intellectual property protections, and gain industry and consultation partners to guide them through the regulatory process.

A novel approach to funding

Angels Den has been around since 2014 and has since grown from a small, internal St. Michael’s Hospital showcase to a popular attraction. Amid a pandemic, the event garnered much interest, and thousands of online viewers had taken part in the competition’s dynamic set up.

In a time when research funding can be exceedingly difficult to come by for small-scale researchers, unorthodox venues like Angels Den can contribute greatly to the progression of medical innovation in Canada. 

“I really want to highlight that the Angels Den is a unique funding opportunity for scientists and clinicians to advance something that evolves the care that would not otherwise be granted funding,” said McIntyre.