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Jon Dogterom

Jon Dogterom

Senior Vice President, Venture Services, MaRS Discovery District

Thornhill Medical’s portable intensive-care device, the MOVES SLC, is a marvel of miniaturization. It functions as a ventilator, delivers concentrated oxygen, provides suction, and monitors patients’ vital signs, all in a battery-operated package about the size of a rolled-up yoga mat. While half the size of typical units, it’s robust enough to handle the freezing Arctic or scorching desert — it even works while being bounced around in a helicopter.

Thornhill’s MOVES SLC is small and tough because it’s usually found in the hands of military medics saving lives in combat zones. Now, this Canadian technology is being deployed in the fight against COVID-19. The federal government has purchased more than 1,000 units in its efforts to increase the supply of ventilator equipment. The order is so large — 10 times Thornhill’s usual capacity — that the firm has partnered with manufacturing giant Linamar

Thornhill is just one example of Canada’s ability to develop innovative technologies in health care, cleantech, and artificial intelligence (AI) — industries that drive our economy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many ventures have stepped up, providing technologies and services to help combat the effects of the pandemic. 

Biopharmaceutical venture PlantForm is using a genetically-modified version of the tobacco plant to develop Canada’s first blood test for COVID-19 immunity and to create antibodies that could be used to treat patients. To accelerate drug development, Cyclica has opened up its AI-enabled platform to researchers around the world. And telehealth ventures, such as Maple and Dialogue, are providing crucial links to care. 

As we begin to reopen the economy, Canada’s tech ventures will play major roles in the adjustment to the new normal.

Canada’s tech ventures are important sources of growth for the economy. They’re also part of a supply chain of innovations that enable other companies to stay competitive. As we begin to reopen the economy, these firms will play major roles in the adjustment to the new normal. In the hard-hit food services sector, for instance, ordering app Ritual has created a platform that makes it easy for restaurants to accept contactless orders both online and in store. And to help universities pivot to online education, Top Hat is making a free version of its virtual classroom next semester. 

As Gord Nixon, a former chief executive of RBC, pointed out in a recent report from the Innovation Economy Council, innovative startups led the way out of the 2008 recession. Tech ventures can do so again. But they’re facing challenges of their own. Young businesses don’t have the deep reserves of established corporations. After more than a decade of investment, Canada has a strong network of innovation hubs, including MaRS, Communitech, and the DMZ, to help companies scale rapidly and bring their innovations to market. But first we need them to make it through the next six to nine months. 

To ensure these high-potential businesses have the financial backstop they need to resume their trajectory once the crisis passes, government support is vital. The goal must be to help these companies survive so that the rest of the economy can thrive. 

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