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Innovation while under Economic Shutdown

Innovation Springs Forward under the Sudden Economic Shutdown in Canada

· innovation,fightcovid,innovation canada

Is the Price worth it? Some people wonder if the sudden shutdown of the economy is worth it to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve seen some celebrity business news folks openly wonder if it was worth the shutdown to “save the older generations”? I have a personal experience: in my family the COVID-19 tragedy took hold early, my wife’s sister died on Easter Friday and their mother, who she looked after, died on Easter Monday. I hope all the folks who wonder, “if it’s all worth it?”, won’t experience the grief, the hurtful tear in the family, that we have. I hope the distancing requirements and careful disinfecting and other precautions will shorten the impact this virus is having; I hope the great majority will listen and continue to behave in a safer way.

In the middle of all this tragic mess, there are amazing Canadian innovators springing up and about to shine brightly. I thought a brief blog to highlight 6 innovative considerations might be of great interest:

1) AI early warnings – BlueDot

2) Testing, mobile – Spartan BioScience

3) Sanitising (re-use) – Clean Works

4) Vaccine (plant based, highly adaptable) – Medicago

5) Tracking for contact tracing and avoidance – misc.

6) National Day of Prayer – Canada was a leader

1) BlueDot. This innovative Artificial Intelligence start-up with machine learning, out of the University of Toronto pushed out a notification to its key stakeholders back on New Year’s Eve warning that a mysterious illness appeared in Wuhan, China. (please see my previous blogs on the Toronto tech start-up scene, or on AI ML/DL Impacts on your people)

Using natural language processing and machine learning BlueDot gathers insights on the behaviour patterns of infectious diseases around the world. BlueDot sounded alarms before the American CDC on Jan. 6th and the World Health Organization (WHO) followed the CDC by another 3 days. Dr. Kamran Khan founded BlueDot to find a way to create a proactive response based on early-warnings after he was involved in how hard SARS hit Ontario back in 2003.

BlueDot is not simply a warning, it continues to predict the spread (they admit it didn’t predict “the size”, but it did predict initial international locations that the disease would spread to using data from travel patterns and natural language press releases etc. BlueDot predicted 12 of the 20 cities that would be hit first with the new corona virus.

Demonstrating results, BlueDot previously predicted that the Zika virus would spread from South America to Florida. It scans over 100,000 news articles in 65 languages and uses outbreaks reported even for animal populations integrated with more than 4 billion annual tickets from airline data while tracking 150 diseases and syndromes trying to predict global spread. The goal of BlueDot’s CEO founder Kamran Khan is to help countries to never become flat-footed; to become less reactive and move towards being proactive based on solid intelligent reporting.

The American TV show 60 Minutes had a great highlight of BlueDot on April 26th [click here]. In the 60 Minutes clip, they noted that “Chinese officials were secretive about what was happening. But BlueDot’s computer doesn’t rely on official statements. Its algorithm was already churning through data, including medical bulletins, even livestock reports, to predict where [which countries and cities] the virus would go next. It was also scanning the ticket data from 4,000 airports.”

The Canadian government will now use BlueDot to produce metrics to ensure that their strategies are effective and that people's behaviours under social distancing health controls are being followed. This enables targeted assignments of public resources to get maximum effect and to control and optimize costs. We can all hope agencies will pay attention to the next early warning that BlueDot produces, most did seem very slow to respond this time around.

2) Spartan Bioscience, a personal favourite to watch, in Ottawa, Ontario. For 15 years founder and CEO Dr. Paul Lem had been developing a portable/mobile DNA testing device. He finally had the world’s smallest DNA analyzer, the “Spartan Cube”.

When the CDC developed a COVID-19 DNA test, Spartan immediately adopted it to their new portable DNA analyser. Even though their device takes ~45min. to run a test, that test is local and fast (and may get faster), importantly it is highly accurate vs some other international rapid test solutions that are not as accurate (and it can do a lot more than a COVID-19 test). Yes it has some risk as it is so very new , but an exciting Canadian development.

The Canadian Federal government woke up and issued a fast-tracked $74MM investment in the device last month before Spartan needed to go international to get funding. That was important for Canada because of the past miss including when Alexander Graham Bell had to take his invention of the Telephone to international sources to get funding. The Ontario government also issued a purchase for over 900,000 testing kits. This device (the size of a large cup of coffee) being highly accurate, and easy to operate without an expert, will be an incredible advantage in fighting this virus. Being able to test and get a quick accurate result, on-site, will be a game changer for the Long-Term Care homes, airports, remote communities, and many other services. Another help is the Yale University finding, published this week that showed saliva samples to be of greater detection sensitivity than the deep nasal swabs currently being used.

We’ve all heard and/or experienced that Long-Term Care (LTC, nursing homes) have been a serious problem. I’m a board member for Heritage Green Nursing Home in Stoney Creek Ontario. It was the first LTC facility in Ontario to report an outbreak. Even 6 weeks later the Ontario government still has not tested everyone, we don’t know exactly who has the virus among 160+ residences and 100+ staff and contract workers. As to the facility’s current status, it has become a good example of responding quickly even with limited visibility to the virus; there have been 4 deaths, and as of this writing 8 known infections among residents and 3 staff, who all have not needed hospital treatment. Compared to other homes of this type Heritage Green responded well, I’m proud to be on the board and to personally know many of the individuals who fought through the first few weeks of the outbreak when many staff suddenly refused to come to work. But with an accurate and fast test from Spartan’s device, it would be a vastly improved workplace where everyone could feel safer and any cases could be quickly responded to.

3) “The Clēan Flow: by Clēan Works” is another Ontario (Niagara region) based company that has been in the news for their innovative device. In 2015 Paul Moyer needed a way to make apples safe from a listeria outbreak. His team came up with a waterless process using ultraviolet light, hydrogen peroxide, and ozone to make compounds that kill pathogens, which happens to include novel coronavirus. The device can sanitise those N95 masks and other PPE equipment quickly, reliably, safely, and on-site. They suddenly have many confirmed orders and their production of the device must exponentially increase (it is visually similar in setup to those small airport security x-ray scanners).

4) Medicago, headquartered in Québec has been rapidly developing a Coronavirus vaccine from plant-based virus-like particles (VLP) to create a protein-based vaccine (i.e. this does not use any animal products, including eggs, or deal with live viruses). The beauty of their method (injecting a virus signature DNA and growing a "look-a-like" particle on a plant) is that it lacks the central genetic material of a virus so that there are no infectious behaviours and the particles don’t replicate. Medicago already has a successful example, they are the only approved vaccine provider for MERs; which they had developed very quickly compared to traditional methods. The COVID-19 vaccine candidate is already being tested and could be put into a human trial this summer, pending that the pre-clinical testing proves to be safe.

If multiple company vaccines make it into the health system, I’ll be looking for this Canadian plant-based scientific marvel for myself.

5) Tracking (Contact Tracing): in order to start the economy again, while no vaccine is available, there must be many controls put in place to fight this invisible threat. There’s a lot of attention on the combination of Google and Apple working on a technological based system to provide Tracking for contact avoidance and response. They are going to make it Open Source and create APIs so that Android and Apple IOS systems work together over Bluetooth (yes, for the technically astute there are issues, including many countries rejecting this approach such as by the NHS in the UK). Any system with data located in the USA will be subject to the Patriot Act which makes it illegal for Canada to use.

Canada will need its own locally stored and run solution. The government(s) (i.e. provincial as well as federal) have been working rapidly along with key industry leaders and academics (such as the University of Toronto innovation incubator) to test and develop a Canadian solution to the problem; how to track, control, and otherwise provide for people to avoid contact with the virus while protecting everyone’s privacy. The system needs to track where the virus is and alert others avoid it “without” personally identifying the individual who has it (this runs into the ongoing debate about individual privacy vs public safety).

A number of solutions have been presented in Ontario, a short list (i.e. 3 or less) are selected, and we’ll see where this ends up. Significant government investment dollars are available to develop an easy-to-operate solution that works even on older mobile devices. One of the intents is that if someone tests positive for COVID-19, then all others who have been near them in the past xx few days get notified to isolate and get can get their own testing later. More on this solution is coming soon.

6) Group Prayer... bringing people together in a common experience for a common cause. Canada is a nation with only 75% of the population claiming to be religious (clearly a majority, but that’s low compared to other countries). Canada is recognized by the United Nations as the most secular nation on the planet. Yet for COVID-19 the Canadian Prime Minister’s office recognized that March 28th was a National Day of Prayer. This is in contrast to the United States of America who, despite their leaders and their nation being more openly religious than Canada, have no talk about such an event nor are they encouraging one to bring people together in their religious practices. With a higher ratio of 82% of the American population identifying as practicing religion, it could be argued that they would have been more likely to do such an event. Now yes, the USA has a set annual day of prayer coming up on May 7th, which is an annual event established back in the 1950s by President Harry S Truman, yet there’s little talk about it or what it will look like this year.

All innovative approaches must be strategically used. Whether those innovations are directly involved in tackling the virus, or whether they be more intangibly motivational such as boosting national morale. Please note that grocery retailers can’t keep potato chips on the shelves, if that calms people then they need to find a way to keep the supply chain going (that’s one of my needs)! Canada did not overly promote the prayer event, yet it was held with an estimated ~200,000 participants. Many people of various faiths coordinated together across the 6 time zones of Canada (yes, I know, some prefer to say “five-and-a-half” time zones) using virtual telecommunications technologies while supporting each other over social media, from different faiths, and the event can still be played back.

Whether someone has a faith aligned with a religion, is independent, or has no faith – the innovation of getting people to have a shared experience is great for boosting morale and helps to encourage an environment for people to work together and to recover together.

I hope we take a good look around at the amazing Canadian innovations that will be game changers.

Is the Price worth it? Sweden, who remains open to keep their economy going, is often mentioned by those who wonder if the sudden shutdown of the economy is worth it to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sweden – let’s take a look. First let me say that I hope it all goes very well for Sweden, however the numbers aren’t promising; as at April 30 with 10.2 million people, Sweden had more than 2,500 deaths. Ontario with 14.5 million people hadn't reached 1,000. Another view at this time is Cases per 1MM people; USA 3,139 - Sweden 1,899 - Canada 1,317 - Ontario 1,131. Sweden is tracking to hit the NYC numbers when they’ve had the virus outbreak for the same length of time.

The price of many lives? …shouldn’t the answer be… “priceless”. The shutdown is necessary to avoid transmission of a highly contagious killer virus. The H1N1 pandemic of 1918 had everyone wearing masks, with economies shutdown in various ways; but then followed the roaring 20’s, so let’s look for global innovation to spark a recovery when hopefully soon the medical crisis eases.

Professor Friedrich in the Netherlands has had the best quote I've seen...

“Herd immunity can never be a public health strategy. It can never be controlled, and it means people will die, and if you are not very careful a lot of people will die,” Professor Friedrich said from the Netherlands


“It’s not a law that we’re all going to get infected. It’s just the consequences of our insufficient action to protect people.”

I hope we can all see that Canada has taken a best available approach to the crisis and is contributing well to the innovation needed for recovery. Those complaining of the shutdown are perhaps ill-advised and/or not thinking broadly of all the needs of the global population, including the needs of their own families should this virus happen to get further out of control.


Please be safe and thoughtful of others!

Ray MacDonald, April 30, 2020