What started as a platform to measure stress levels of grizzly bears in the Alberta wild may just keep you out of the hospital in the future.

Ryan Denomme and his team at Nicoya Lifesciences, a startup based at Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre, were inspired by the challenge of taking blood tests in the wild during grad school studies in mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo, where Denomme worked in the sensors and integrated microsystems lab. They designed a system that allowed researchers to analyze samples in the field, instead of having to take them back to a lab.

While deciding what he wanted to do after he finished school, Denomme noticed chronic disease issues kept coming up in conversations with colleagues and friends. He realized the research methods he used in the wild could also be used in the home, though with different results.

Today, Nicoya Lifesciences is in the prototype stage of a new device to tackle one of North America’s biggest killers: heart failure.

With 6 million people suffering from  heart failure in North America, and rehospitalization rates of up to 50 per cent due to complications and medication issues, Denomme wants to prevent as many unnecessary trips to hospital as he can.

“When we tell people the story behind what we’re trying to do with heart failure, everyone instantly sees how huge of a problem it is, and how desperate they are for a solution,” Denomme says. “People see how [heart disease] is dealt with now, and say there has to be something better.”

The strain on hospitals and families will continue unless treatment methods change, Denomme says. Currently, heart medicine combinations are tricky to perfect, and patients must weigh themselves daily because weight gain be a sign of increased fluid retention in the body.

As a result, consistent weight gain often results in a return to hospital, even if fluid retention is not the cause. Human weight fluctuates daily for a variety of reasons, including eating salty foods and gaining water weight.

“It’s insane that with the technology we have today, that people are just using this ancient scale to manage their disease,” says Denomme.

Measuring specific biomarkers through blood tests, on the other hand, can more accurately diagnose heart failure issues.

Denomme wants heart failure patients to be able to test their blood as easily as diabetics can. With his system, a patient would test a drop of blood in a small machine connected to a smartphone. The information is uploaded to the patient’s medical files so that both patient and doctor can follow the body’s trends and decide if intervention is needed.

In test settings, Denomme says biomarker measuring helps reduce 60 per cent of rehospitalization, which could offer $6 billion in savings to the North American health-care system.

Denomme expects the product to be available in 2015. He and his team are preparing to finish their next prototype this spring and hope to obtain clinical approvals from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2014.

The high cost of creating hardware has been partially offset by the Ontario Scientists and Engineers in Business Commercialization Fellowship from FedDev and the University of Waterloo. Denomme received a further financial boost when he placed second recently at the SPIE Photonics Startup Challenge in San Francisco. He took home a $5,000 prize and the people’s choice award.

Denomme is eager to see his product in people’s hands. When he explains what he is trying to do, he says, people get really excited. Heart disease affects most families, and Denomme knows there has to be a better way to keep people healthy and out of the hospital.

Hear Denomme’s story at Communitech’s June 5 Upstart Breakfast.

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