How healthcare company MyndTec is turning science into profits
BY PAUL GALLANT
After a serious stroke or spinal cord injury, some people lose hope they’ll be able to feed or dress themselves again. Conventional therapies for hand and arm paralysis often end not long after release from hospital, leaving patients dependent on others for even the most mundane task.
Two decades ago, none of this was on the mind of Dr. Milos Popovic, one of the founders of Mississauga, Ont.-based medical-device company MyndTec. Then an aerospace engineer who had finished working on the newest edition of the Dash 8, he was looking for a job. A colleague suggested applying at a company that was working on neuroprosthetics, developing artificial body parts that can be controlled by capturing signals from the brain, often using electrical currents.
“The moment I learned I got the job, I had to start learning what a neuron is,” says Popovic, now a senior scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering. “To this day, I don’t understand how I got the job, though it changed the course of my life.”
In his new role, Popovic noticed that patients with paralysis who were trying out neuroprosthetic devices often gained improved control and movement of their own limbs. So, in the 1990s, he began work on using electrical currents to push different muscles into action, retraining the central nervous system to improve ability after a stroke or injury. In trial after trial, he saw impressive results.
At a pitch competition for startups in 2011, he met Dr. Diana Pliura, who had worked at several other life-science, pharmaceutical and medical-device companies. By 2012, the duo had founded the company that became MyndTec, eventually wooing about $3.5 million from Ontario angel investors, and another $2.3 million in awards and grants, to commercialize Popovic’s work.
“For a healthcare company, there wasn’t a lot of history of raising that much capital,” says Pliura. “We’ve had to be very careful about our priorities so as not to burn through a lot of cash.” That’s meant keeping staff to just eight people, and limiting MyndTec’s first product to soft launches until it was ready for prime time.
A key step was turning the prototypes – which sometimes required expert fiddling – into self-contained products that could easily be operated by even the most un-tech-savvy therapists. That first consumer-ready product, MyndMove, received its licence from Health Canada last spring and launched in Canada in the fall of 2014. The device, which looks like an oversized tablet, is wired to eight electrical stimulators delivering low-voltage currents to different muscles in a patient’s hands and arms. Patients pay for a subscription to customized therapy programs via downloadable software.
“The most exciting thing since the launch has been that the therapists using it are saying the results are as good or better than we had in our clinical papers,” says Popovic.
A recent discovery that MindMove therapy may improve functionality for some patients long after a stroke or injury – in the case of one patient, more than 20 years later – has the two founders happily facing a global market that’s much bigger than they first expected. They’ve started reaching beyond hospitals, to community organizations and other long-term-care providers. While the company was jumping the many hurdles to get the product licensed for use in Canada, they were also reaching out to hospitals in the U.S., with a keen eye on entering the world’s largest market for medical devices.
“Some healthcare systems are not looking for innovation,” says Pliura, “so we’re trying to find hospitals and healthcare systems that think out of the box.”