Three small Canadian firms named “top innovators”

Three small Canadian businesses have been named top innovators by Rogers Cable Communications and PROFIT Magazine for creating unique products that are helping their industries move forward.

This year’s winners include iMD Health, a Toronto firm that created an interactive terminal to improve communication between doctors and their patients;  Mad Rock Marine Solutions Inc. in St. John’s Nfld. for building a new life boat safety hook; and VitaSound Audio Inc. in Concord Ont., for redesigning a more effective hearing aid.

The Innovations@Work Award program, now in its second year, honours forward-thinking small businesses with fewer than 20 employees for innovative approaches to products, services and business management.

Companies with fewer than 20 workers make up 70 per cent of all Canadian businesses, and are the unsung heroes of the Canadian economy, said Elizabeth Williams, director of acquisition marketing for Rogers Cable Communications in Toronto.

She said businesses with fewer than 50 employees contribute 26 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP), and are the “backbone of the Canadian economy.”   

As the economic turmoil continues, startups are among those most affected, as many new products are being financed on a handful of high-interest credit cards, Williams noted.

“These business owners are truly driven by passion and their successes need to be talked about and celebrated.”

This year, she said, the panel received around 90 “serious” submissions for the award.   

Winners were picked based on how creative their product or service is, it’s potential for being successfully commercialized, the company’s tenure, and whether the product stands out as a truly new way of doing something.

Hooked on safety

A new lifeboat safety hook, which aims to reduce injuries related to marine safety drills, was designed by Mad Rock Marine Solutions.

“Lifeboat safety is one issue you don’t really think about and most people don’t even believe a lifeboat could kill you, but it’s a big problem in the marine industry,” Williams said.

An estimated 1,200 lifeboat accidents between 1990 and 2002 have killed around 600 people.

A safety regulation requires that lifeboat safety hooks be capable of opening before they hit the water to make landing possible during windy conditions, said Dean Pelley, president and CEO of Mad Rock.

As hooks are designed with this safety regulation in mind, if not reset properly after a drill, they tend to pop open unexpectedly, causing the boat to fall 80 to 90 metres into the water.  

Mad Rock’s answer to this problem is a fail-closed hook, called the RocLoc, which has an additional safety mechanism to help keep the lock shut, if it is not reset properly.

Jumping into the field was risky for a small company – comprised of engineers – having to face a lot of big players.

But success has been extraordinary and explosive. Since the product launch in 2006, Mad Rock has seen revenues grow by 1,800 per cent.

A picture’s worth a thousand medical terms

Another company honoured with an Innovations@Work Award is iMD Health in Toronto.

The firm designed the iMD HealthTouch terminal that helps doctors explain medical terminology to patients.

The idea was thought up by company founder Sandro Micieli, who had a flash of inspiration while sitting in a doctor’s office.

Micieli witnessed his doctor struggle to explain what a blood clot looked like.

“He was flipping through the pages of his medical books trying to find a picture that would explain what was going on inside my leg, but couldn’t find one. In that moment, I thought: I can design something to fix this.”

The goal of the terminal is to help patients better understand their condition and prescriptions, and improve medical care in Canada.

Research on the visual health terminal began in 2003 with pilot projects being rolled out this year. So far all doctors involved in the project have provided, “amazing feedback,” Micieli said.

The terminal allows doctors to show patients what their illness looks like, as it appears inside their body, by using a touch screen to click on a portion of the body, and then further click on the internal component, such as the blood, or muscle.

“Everyone understands what a picture means,” said Micieli. “We could all speak 1,000 different languages but a picture really does help describe what is going on inside your body.”   

Patient privacy is protected via “privatecasting,” a secure way of broadcasting information from medical files and journals to doctors on an encrypted network protected by two firewalls.

Doctors can also use the terminal to calculate body mass index, cholesterol levels, and check pulse and heart rate.

The terminal will eventually hold electronic medical records.

“It’s one of those products, which you look at and ask yourself, why didn’t I think of that?“, said Williams from Rogers Cable. “We really admired their tenacity — creating demand for a product in a field that already has very tight budgets and not a lot of office space.”

Sound innovation

Another company transforming how healthcare is provided is VitaSound Audio, whose innovative design for a hearing aid is making the first big improvement since the inception of the traditional hearing aid model.

VitaSound Audio is operating in a very old and unchanged industry, questioning the traditional manufacturers, and making the aids easier to obtain and less expensive.

Traditional hearing aids, typically, operate by increasing sound levels to match your degree of hearing loss, noted Gora Ganguli, president and CEO.  

The disadvantage is such aids amplify a lot of unwanted sound, such as background noise.

VitaSound Audio’s hearing aid takes a different approach. It analyzes electrical signals from nerves in your brain to assess how your brain absorbs sound.

By studying nerve cell damage within the ear, the company has been able to figure out which sounds or vibrations the brain is unable to pick up.

“Think of it as a forest of trees inside your ear,” Ganguli said.  Much like in a forest, he said, there can be “dead patches” in the ear’s nerve forest that no longer conduct electrical signals.

“We look at these dead areas, discover which signals they typically send the brain, and address the missing links, instead of amplifying everything.”

The end result is more natural sound, which eliminates the problems of background noise and feedback.

The product, dubbed the Neuro-Compensator, was created based on fundamental research from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

Researchers at McMaster studied electrical signals from nerves to the brain and created a model.

The model can be used to create personalized hearing aids — based on data from a standard audiogram test the patient completes — which is then plugged into the mathematical model.

“Rather than amplify sound, we are essentially just finding a better, more personalized, pathway to the brain,” Ganguli said.

The aim of the new hearing aid is also to reduce the stigma around wearing hearing aids.

Only 20 per cent of people who could benefit from hearing assistance actually wear a hearing aid, mainly because of the many problems associated with traditional devices.

But the more efficient Neuro-Compensator could fill the void in this market, as the product is more effective, the VitaSound Audio executive said.

The company finished trials in January and plans to launch the Neuro-Compensator in April.

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