Attracting businesses with innovation, world-class schools, disruptive ideas and 'a humble attitude'

Since becoming business partners seven years ago, Edmontonians Chandra Devam and Scott Edgar have spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, developing high-tech ventures and a professional network.

To build their new company, Aris MD, they're staying home. The Aris technology gives doctors a virtual map of the inside of a patient's body. Everyone's organs are located in a slightly different place, and having a map can help prevent surgical accidents.

"Edmonton has an environment that fosters innovation with world-class schools, disruptive ideas and a humble attitude that makes us think outside the box," Devam says. "It has everything it needs to be a really big player in the health-innovation industry."

That's the kind of endorsement Mayor Don Iveson aimed for when he announced Edmonton's Health City initiative in April 2016. Health City encourages local innovators in the healthcare sector to stay where they are to develop their businesses and promotes the city as a destination where health-related companies can flourish.

Iveson says the project could shift the city's economy.

"For a long time we've been a city and a province that relied on the oil and gas sector, and every time we've been through the boom and bust we've said, 'We're going to do things differently,' " says Karen Wichuk, Health City's executive lead. "This time we are. This is about building businesses that benefit not just Edmonton but the region and the province. In my mind, if we do it right, all ships will rise."

Edmonton has strengths no other North American city can match, says Wichuk. One of the biggest, she says, is that it is administrative home to Alberta Health Services (AHS), which serves more than 4.5 million people at every stage of their lives. AHS has more than 650 facilities throughout Alberta, including hospitals, clinics and continuing care centres.

To take a product from development "across the finish line and into clinical practice" is a complex process, says Jason Pincock, Health City's vice president and the CEO of DynaLIFE dagnostic lab services. It involves many people at many levels of the healthcare system and government, he says.

Because AHS is such a large-scale health provider, Pincock says, "We only have to bring together six or eight leaders across the organization to make those decisions."

Edmonton's post-secondary schools are another strength. Their health, wellness and medical researchers are discovering a wide array of knowledge, ranging from new ways to diagnose and treat illness to making Alberta's healthcare system more efficient. Their faculty members teach and mentor students in all areas of healthcare.

On the investment and incubator side, Edmonton has Alberta Innovates, the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation and TEC Edmonton (a joint venture between Edmonton Economic Development and the University of Alberta).

Many of these players have worked together in the past. Now they have a clearly defined network and a shared goal. "Health City brings everyone to the table and they find new linkages," says Reg Joseph, who until February was Alberta Innovates' vice president of Health.

Joseph and Pincock made such a link in 2017 after hearing Dr. John Lewis, an oncologist and University of Alberta professor, talk about cancer research.

They reached out to the Alberta Cancer Foundation to hold a competition to find and fund cancer research that was, Pincock says, "near the finish line."

They chose two winners. One was Lewis's company, Nanostics, which is working on a blood test to replace the traditional multi-needle biopsy used to diagnose prostate cancer. The other, Syantra, is a University of Calgary spinoff developing a blood test to replace mammograms.

"Historically, we would see outside international players buy up those ideas and they would be developed elsewhere," Pincock says. "Alberta would then have to buy the technology back, but on the retail market, from international players late in the game.

"That model doesn't create jobs in Edmonton or promote opportunities in Alberta," he says. "If we can adopt those companies here in Alberta when they're coming to the finish line, then we can push them across so that all that benefit happens in the province. Companies that cross the finish line here will stay here to develop their next product."

Mehadi Sayed's medical records company, Clinisys EMR, was past the finish line when Wichuk asked him to join a Health City organizing committee in 2016. A former instructor in new technologies at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, Sayed joined because he felt the initiative was important.

He never expected to benefit directly. Then software giant Microsoft contacted him and asked to partner with Clinisys to produce cloud-based solutions to improve health records.

Sayed says Health City's support in announcing the deal was "absolutely 100 per cent crucial."

"We would have done a small little function in our office, but Health City became involved and the event grew in size," he adds. "They made sure that the Microsoft executives were welcome."

Welcoming people is a Health City priority, Wichuk says. "I want people to be able to say, 'If you're engaged in health innovation or if you want to build health business, go to Edmonton because they roll out the red carpet for you. They've developed an ecosystem, they navigate you through their system, they embrace and support the talent, they're creative, and they work hand-in-glove with the health-delivery system across Alberta.'"

That message resonated with Edgar and Devam when they were planning to raise funds for Aris MD in California in 2016. They'd done most of the groundwork for the company but they hadn't been able to enter a professional network in Edmonton.

Then they learned about Health City and contacted Wichuk.

"We met with her, she saw our product and got excited and put us in touch with big companies. She gave us a bit of the fuel we needed," Devam said. "It was almost like a concierge service. We said, 'here are the things we need,' and they got things rolling for us."

Today, Aris MD has a staff of five, but Devam plans to hire hundreds more: programmers, medical advisers, and marketing and development specialists. She won't have to look far.

Edmonton has an educated, intelligent population that's being underused, and she wants to use it.

"Innovation is a renewable resource and we should be intellectually prospecting, not energy prospecting," she says. "I don't like to use the term 'the next Silicon Valley'-nothing's ever going to be the next Silicon Valley.

Edmonton needs to be its own thing, and it's in a position to be. That's why we're here."

Written by Debby Waldman, illustrated by Janice Kun. Originally appeared in Apple Magazine, Spring 2018.