To the outside world, Albertan innovation has long been viewed as a one-trick pony, with most of the attention given to the province's oil and gas industry.
But a group of students at the University of Calgary is working to change that, asking bright young scholars from a variety of disciplines to build new products that will not only help solve problems in the field of health and medicine, but also highlight opportunities for innovation in the province.
Co-founded by six biomedical engineering graduate students, Innovation 4 Health (I4H) is getting set to host its second-annual Health Hack Weekend, where 19 teams will face-off in the lab, building prototypes that could potentially help solve very real healthcare issues.
Abdullah Al-Ani, an I4H co-founder and MD-PhD candidate, said the group was born over beers a few years back, as he and his fellow students discussed barriers in their field.
"We'd always talk about our frustrations that (as students) we did a lot of really cool things in the lab, really innovative things, but these innovative things did not get readily translated to the clinic," he told HuffPost Canada.
"The medical community wasn't really aware of all the cool stuff we could do, and we weren't really aware of what clinicians wanted."
To bridge those gaps, I4H now solicits pitches from doctors and veterinarians across the country, asking them to identify challenges that arise in their day-to-day jobs and detail how a change in technology or design could help solve the problem.
I4H whittles down the number of pitches, evaluating them for feasibility and impact, before presenting them to 150 interested students. The students decide which idea they'd like to tackle, form groups, and from there have six weeks to flesh out their ideas before heading into the lab for a head-to-head, 72-hour hackathon to build their final prototypes.
Last year, the groups worked on prototypes related to surgery and recovery, including a biodegradable bullet to help vaccinate wild animals, and a more user-friendly IV pole, which provides a secure place to hang bags of medicine or fluid to be slowly given to a patient. In the end, the IV pole prototype took first place (and a $30,000 dollar prize) after being evaluated by a team of judges that included veterans in the fields of medicine, engineering, biotechnology, and business.
This year's hackathon focuses on issues in diagnostics and monitoring, calling on teams to create wearables, devices, apps, simulators, and veterinary tools.
Among the challenges are an all-in-one vital signs monitor for veterinary patients, a stroke "rehab kit" to help patients relearn fine motor skills, and a low-cost otoscope that Ear Nose Throat specialists can take with them on medical missions to developing countries.
Joanne Yi, a second year veterinary student, was one of the only undergrad students to pitch an idea this year.
"I was a little bit intimidated because most of the other pitches came from doctors and PhD students, but I reassured myself that I knew what the gaps (in veterinary care) were from my three years in the clinic," she explained to HuffPost Canada, speaking about her previous work at a small animal hospital.
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Her team, made up of engineering and medical science students, has been working for the past six weeks to design a prototype for the all-in-one veterinary monitor.
"It's been really inspiring to see these students with different backgrounds and interests come together and do something proactive together toward making a positive impact in the (health) industry," she said.
Yi credits her engineering teammates for most of the work on the prototype, and said this weekend's lab time will be a test of the cohesiveness and collaboration within the group.
"I have all the trust in the world with the engineers. I know they're going to make a great product."
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The goal of the Health Hack challenge "is not necessarily to build the next multi-billion dollar biotech company," said Al-Ani, "but rather to start a culture of conversation between people with various types and levels of training."
However, he said, there are a few groups from last year's hackathon that are still running with their prototype and forming companies, in the hopes of reaching commercialization one day.
I4H's Health Hack weekend runs Nov. 23-25. On Monday, Demo Day, the groups will present their prototypes to a panel of judges and the winners will be decided.