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Shana Kelley: A quicker way to diagnose disease

Shana Kelley’s by Jef Ekins/University of Toronto

Innovators at Work is a contest to recognize talented people who not only have great ideas but also turn them into reality through their drive and their actions. You can nominate an Innovator here.

Among the many talents that Shana Kelley possesses as an innovator, there's a simple idea: To find out something, go to it, don't wait for it to come to you.

In Dr. Kelley's case, "it" includes diagnosing some of the world's most deadly diseases. The University of Toronto chemistry professor is co-founder of Xagenic, a startup that has developed a fast, cost-effective way for molecular testing in the field instead of the lab.

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Xagenic's lab-free molecular diagnostic platform is designed to provide test results for patients on site within 20 minutes. The technology could be used to diagnose cancer and infectious diseases and for drug delivery.

The aim is to empower clinicians to make treatment decisions for their patients the first time they see them, dramatically improving care, reducing health-care costs – and saving lives. Right now, most diagnostic testing is done in centralized labs and can take weeks or months.

Dr. Kelley and her team developed a hand-held device in Toronto, with seed funding from MaRS innovation and other local organizations. The team has insisted on keeping the company in downtown Toronto, to stay closer to both investors and the university community.

In three years, the company has grown to 30 employees, and has raised more than $30-million from Canadian, U.S. and European backers.

"Bringing a new technology to market is a huge challenge – and many have failed trying," she wrote on her blog recently for the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.

"So you have to be prepared for skeptics. Believing 100 per cent in what you're doing … is key. As is keeping the faith when confronted with skeptics, or all the investors that will tell you, 'No.' You need to believe strongly enough in what you are doing to weather the rejection or pessimism you will face along the way."

Believing in what she's doing is nothing new for Dr. Kelley. Just two years after joining the U of T, she became director of biomolecular sciences, and she invented the first electronic chip that could sense molecular disease markers.

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Dr. Kelley also co-founded GeneOhm Sciences, a nanotechnology firm set up to make products to prevent hospital-acquired infections. She has been awarded the prestigious Steacie Prize, given to promising young scientists and engineers, and was named one of Canada's "Top 40 under 40" and a "Top 100 Innovator" by MIT's Technology Review.

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