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St. Michael’s Hospital, Ryerson unveil joint venture to improve health care

Dale Podolsky, a resident in plastic surgery and a PhD student in biomedical engineering, created a simulator doctors can use to practise surgical skills to repair cleft palates in infants.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ori Rotstein, surgeon-in-chief at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital, didn't know Ryerson University's dean of engineering when he took the seat beside him at an award announcement five years ago. Before the event ended, the pair had struck an alliance, figuring there must be ways the school and hospital, located on each other's doorsteps, could work together.

The results of that chance meeting are on display this week with the opening Tuesday of shared research facilities and a new business incubator, both designed to help translate science into improvements in care and hasten their use at the bedside.

"I said, 'We are neighbours and we have not done much together,'" remembers Ryerson's Mohamed Lachemi, now the school's interim president. "When you bring people with different perspectives together, that's when you get innovation."

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As governments across the country strive to find ways to bridge the gap between research and application, the partnership between Ryerson and St. Mike's is an example of a grassroots effort driven by individuals rather than top-down policies or funding.

"This was really organic," said Dr. Rotstein, director of the hospital's research centre and co-director of the new Institute for Biomedical Engineering, Science and Technology, or iBest, the new joint venture with Ryerson.

Through a series of meetings where researchers from both institutions presented their work, the idea gained growing support, including with hospital and school leaders, and a formal agreement was reached in 2013.

Now Ryerson researchers are moving into space rented by the university on the seventh floor of the hospital's Keenan Research Centre, allowing them to work beside St. Mike's researchers and clinicians. And last fall, the university and hospital opened the doors of a new business incubator down the hall. Called the Biomedical Zone, it is modelled after Ryerson's successful DMZ (formerly the Digital Media Zone) incubator and will help about a dozen early-stage companies at a time to develop their ideas.

Dale Podolsky, a resident in plastic surgery and a PhD student in biomedical engineering, is one of the first to use the incubator's resources. His research with four surgeons at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children led him to develop a 3D model that doctors can use to practise the tricky skills required to repair cleft palates in infants. The birth defect, caused when the tissues on the roof of the month do not join together, affects about 200,000 infants worldwide each year, Dr. Podolsky said. But the complex, two-hour operation is difficult to learn, he said.

"It was so clear there was a need for a training device," said Dr. Podolsky, whose company, Simulare Medical, is looking for investors.

Linda Maxwell, the incubator's founding director, herself a surgeon with an MBA, said entrepreneurs usually have a hard time making contact with clinicians in the early stages of development, but the partnership with the hospital removes that barrier.

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A company that uses UV technology to sanitize portable electronics, for example, was able to get advice from the hospital's head of infection control. St. Mike's is now being used as a test site for the technology.

Dr. Rotstein figures the early examples of cross-pollination between the two facilities, which is focused on biomedical engineering and physics, is just the beginning.

Already a group of fourth-year engineering students is working with a plastic surgeon, he said, and the hospital's simulation experts are teaming up with computer scientists.

"We believe this is part and parcel of a bigger collaboration," he said. " I see it on two levels. One is improving our science. The second is taking the power of engineering and biomedical science to the bedside."

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