Neuro Nexus

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This annual design competition aims to spur medical innovation

The Carelytic team, counter-clockwise from top left: Prince Okoli, Gabrielle Gonzaga, Jennifer Trinh, Roxanne Howard, Pujarati Roy. (Missing: Angela Li, Sam Joshva). Photo by Meredith Bailey.

The Carelytic team, counter-clockwise from top left: Prince Okoli, Gabrielle Gonzaga, Jennifer Trinh, Roxanne Howard, Pujarati Roy. (Missing: Angela Li, Sam Joshva). Photo by Meredith Bailey.

The human brain is incredibly complex. Unfortunately, so are many of the diseases and disorders that affect it. Understanding and treating neurological conditions, including everything from depression to dementia, is one of the great challenges facing medicine today. Launched last spring, Neuro Nexus is an annual multidisciplinary design competition confronting that challenge head-on. 

Hosted by Innovation 4 Health, a student organization at the University of Calgary that focuses on health-care innovation through fast-paced hack-a-thon-style events, the competition asks doctors, researchers, health professionals and community members to identify specific problems associated with a range of neurological disorders, as well as bottlenecks in neuroscience research. Those issues include things like predicting and monitoring the effectiveness of medication for personalized approaches or developing new therapeutics. Small groups of students from universities across Calgary who are studying in fields such as engineering, medicine, sciences and business, collaborate in hopes of solving one of the issues. 

“We connect people who know a challenge with people who have the skills to address it in a meaningful way,” says Kathryn Simone, Innovation 4 Health co-founder and biomedical engineering PhD candidate.

Teams of five to seven people have just six weeks to come up with their approach to the problem and three days in the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering Maker Multiplex to build a prototype. Neuro Nexus culminates in a “Demo Day” where teams show off their ideas and compete for awards and funding. Former Daily Planet host Jay Ingram emceed the inaugural edition of the event at Calgary’s new Central Library in May 2019. 

“It was the largest event we ever did,” says Simone, who organizes similar challenges in other areas of medicine for Innovation 4 Health. “The show of support from the community was really quite powerful.”

The grand prize was awarded for a set of inflatable cuffs designed to limit brain damage from strokes by applying pressure to a patient’s extremities. In the data analytics category, an app called Carelytic took the top prize. The app is made for caregivers supporting people living with dementia. It allows caregivers to track things like diet, medications and behaviour, thereby identifying potentially clinically significant patterns. Other categories include clinical impact, research impact and people’s choice. Successful teams use the cash prizes, totalling $17,500, to continue developing their prototype, some entering accelerator or incubator programs with an eye to eventually bringing their idea to market.

Pujarati Roy, Carelytic’s team spokesperson who’s in the third year of her bachelor of science degree at the U of C, says winning at Neuro Nexus was valuable on multiple levels. 

“Winning at Neuro Nexus was able to secure Carelytic some funding, but even more valuable was the outreach and support we gained throughout the event. We were able to network with amazing people and it made us extremely hopeful that we can accomplish our goal,” Roy says. “We are currently in the design phase and working alongside medical practitioners to create a better fit with current patient care.”  

Innovation 4 Health plans to expand Neuro Nexus in 2020 by opening up the competition to students and professionals from across Alberta. The team is also considering adding artificial intelligence as another competition category.

“People want to apply their skills to meaningful problems,” says Simone. 

The 2020 Neuro Nexus competition will begin this spring. [ ]

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