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Derek Exner

Dr. Derek Exner

Medical Director, IMPACT

There’s no shortage of great ideas, but many never see the light of day because of a lack of expertise and a clear path forward. The need for better outcomes was recognized by the establishment of Innovation@UCalgary, an ecosystem that supports solution-driven innovations by bridging their transition from discovery to introduction into the marketplace. It’s a program that brings together thought leaders, University of Calgary faculty members, government, and industry — all with the same goal, namely, to foster partnerships and map out a road to success for start-ups.

The university’s Integrated Management Platform to Accelerate Clinical Trials (IMPACT) Clinical Trials Accelerator plays a key role. It focuses on new ventures in the life sciences or biomedical industries that seek to commercialize health-related inventions, conduct clinical trials, and secure regulatory approval. Dr. Derek Exner, a Calgary cardiologist with 25 years of experience with clinical trials, created IMPACT through a partnership with Dr. Chen Fong, a pioneer in the medical technology space in Canada and a founder of Creative Destruction Lab. They were able to secure grant funding and support through the University of Calgary.

Partnerships push innovation forward

“IMPACT was created to engage with university faculty and external entrepreneurs,” says Dr. Exner, “to create products to improve health. We provide the expertise and resources to guide them through the complex and challenging aspects of getting their product to market. We provide a one-stop shop that starts with linking companies with expert clinical faculty to provide guidance through all the various steps required to get their product to market.”

The IMPACT program is unique not just within Canada but the world, Dr. Exner notes. “There’s nothing quite like it in terms of what we’ve established. There are certainly pieces of it elsewhere, but the overall program is a game-changer for small start-ups. Within the University of Calgary framework, it really dovetails well within what we want to do in terms of some of our top priorities: creating innovation and fostering entrepreneurship at the university.”

The one-stop shop approach was badly needed to streamline a complex process that has caused some start-up companies to abandon projects before they’re brought to fruition. “You need an idea, and clearly, you need a vision and a lot of hard work to get your product to market,” says Dr. Exner. “But if you don’t have access to the tools or contacts you need and don’t have an ability to move a concept forward efficiently, then you end up potentially bankrupting a company before it ever has a product.”

We provide a one-stop shop that starts with linking companies with expert clinical faculty to provide guidance through all the various steps required to get their product to market.

Game-changing benefits of a supportive ecosystem

Some companies give up in Canada and decide to go to the U.S. to move ahead with their innovations. “There’s a lot of money spent every year developing different things, and it’s a real shame when companies created in Canada go elsewhere to do their research,” says Dr.Exner. “The potential economic benefits are lost.”

Fortunately, that didn’t happen with Zennea Technologies, a B.C. company started by Rachel Chase and Oliver Luo that’s creating a clinically-proven medical device for chronic snoring and mild obstructive sleep apnea. “Their company is full of very bright, hard-working entrepreneurs who have had challenges accessing physicians to do the research needed,” says Dr. Exner. “Through our processes, we were able to get them to a stage where they were able to start their human trials in Calgary rather than the U.S. Being able to work with them is a huge win.

Access to faculty members at the University of Calgary, its students, and partners like Creative Destruction Lab, which has a great deal of knowledge around the business side of developing new technologies, has allowed IMPACT to become a true game-changer on many fronts. Two examples are IMPACT’s ability to be a more cost-effective option for companies and the speed at which innovations can be introduced. “It can take two and a half to three years of working with Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to get approval of the results of your research,” Dr. Exner notes. “Now, we can shorten that time to 12 months.” That’s concrete proof that IMPACT is working and making a difference.

IMPACT Helps a Vancouver Start-up Bring Its Anti-Snoring Device to Market

Zennea Technologies CEO, Rachel Chase, discusses how the IMPACT program is helping her company bring an anti-snoring device to market.

Rachel Chase

CEO & Co-Founder, Zennea Technologies

When Rachel Chase co-founded Zennea Technologies three years ago, she had a clear goal: create a solution to a real problem. In this case, the solution was a clinically-proven medical device to help combat chronic snoring and mild obstructive sleep apnea. After working with various partners on development and research, Zennea was ready to conduct clinical trials. The company looked to the University of Calgary’s IMPACT Clinical Trials Accelerator for help in taking the next step.

How did you learn about the IMPACT program?

We joined Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a Canadian mentor program. Vancouver, in particular, has a great health-focused sub-program under CDL. At its pitch and mentor events, you get access to resources and potential investment opportunities. We were lucky enough to meet Dr. Chen Fong, one of the leaders of the health side of CDL. He introduced us to his colleague Dr. Derek Exner, the Medical Director of the IMPACT program. That’s how it began.

What were you hoping to achieve by partnering with the program?

We had been doing some basic lab tests and knew we also needed to do a clinical study. We were in the process of setting one up in Houston, but we found it would be a very capital-intensive investment — millions of dollars — to undertake. That’s difficult for a small, early-stage start-up. We talked to Dr. Exner about figuring out the most optimal, cost-effective study. He suggested we design the study we wanted and offered to help us execute it. It was very easy to say “yes.”

Would clinical trials be something you could do on your own?

It’s very difficult, but not impossible. IMPACT streamlined the process for us, and being a start-up, you’re always working on so many different things at the same time, wearing multiple hats, and having someone say, “Here’s the answer to your problem,” makes life a lot easier.

What would you tell other start-ups who are thinking about working with IMPACT?

Having the opportunity to have a contract research organization that’s skilled and that will reduce costs just makes it so much easier from an execution point of view. It takes a lot of pressure off our team to have someone so skilled be able to help us and allow us to feel confident in the results we’re getting. It’s a great program.

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