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OBI Entrepreneurs are bringing cutting-edge brain research to the masses

As a researcher in the fledgling field of quantum information, Xingxing Xing has always seen his work as a thing of the future.

“I study the properties of light, and how its smallest parts interact with the world around us,” says Xing, who is a physicist with the Institute for Optical Sciences (IOS) at the University of Toronto. “Knowing exactly how light works means we can manipulate it to do tasks, like process information very quickly.  One day, we think our research will result in much better computers.  For now, though, we’re new, and it will be years until our findings are useful to most people.”

But this year Xing will have the rare opportunity to use his specialized expertise to create a practical product that could benefit thousands of patients around the world.  Xing is one of eight researchers across Ontario who has been selected as an Ontario Brain Institute (OBI) Entrepreneur, receiving a year-long grant from OBI to develop and commercialize an important neuroscience technology. Learn about other OBI Entrepreneurs.

“While there’s a lot of promise in research, I also want to use my knowledge to help people right now,” says Xing.  “Much of what I do to study light is directly applicable to medical imaging.  There’s so much immediate potential.”

The OBI Entrepreneurs program is designed to give researchers the practical skills and support they need to translate basic science into products that can have a widespread impact.

“Researchers enrolled in our program are paired up with educators, industry-based contacts and a local network of mentors,” says Shiva Amiri, senior program lead for OBI.  “They help with business planning, business development and experience-based strategies for bringing new neuroscience technologies and treatments to the market. In return, OBI Entrepreneurs are expected to meet a series of product development and commercialization milestones over their one-year term that will set them on the path to an independent, self-sustaining business.”

For Xing, this will mean finding a way to make ultrasound technology useful for brain imaging – a task that has eluded the health-care community for more than 50 years.  While ultrasound is one of the most widely used diagnostic tools in medicine, it’s still ineffective for areas of the body covered by dense substances, like bone. The hope is that Xing’s insight into measuring and manipulating light could result in a way to manage ultrasound distortion through the skull, allowing for a clear image of the brain.

“Ultrasound machines are available in nearly every clinic in North America, and they’re affordable enough to be used around the world,” says Xing.  “In comparison, other types of imaging technology – like MRI and PET – are very expensive and limited to large hospitals.  Making ultrasound an accessible technology for brain imaging could have a major impact on our ability to detect brain abnormalities early, when they’re most treatable.”

Cynthia Goh, a professor of Chemistry and director of the IOS at the University of Toronto, is an entrepreneur, researcher, mentor and the visionary behind Techno, a month-long, hands-on learning experience for “technopreneurs” interested in creating innovative solutions to today’s pressing problems. Now in its third year, Techno2012 includes 15 teams of graduate students and recent graduates who are in various stages of commercializing technology. OBI Entrepreneurs have joined Techno2012 as part of a partnership with IOS, where they are refining their ideas and beginning to build their potential start-up companies.

“This is an important model for bringing research results closer to societal benefits,” says Goh.  “It takes an awfully long time for scientific breakthroughs to have an impact on our lives. Our goal is to shorten that period by enabling science experts to develop relevant technology driven by their own knowledge of the market. In the past three years, we’ve helped form more than 20 companies, and we continue to guide these companies today. We’re accelerating the path from research to market, building an innovation ecosystem, creating high-value jobs and retaining our brightest minds.”

OBI Entrepreneurs vary widely in their business experience.  For Xing, Techno2012 represents his first formal education about the world of entrepreneurship. OBI has partnered with similar mentorship services across Ontario to ensure that entrepreneurs are supported in their home communities.  It has also partnered with the Ontario Centres of Excellence to co-fund several entrepreneurs.

“What’s great is that they’re bringing us back to the very basics,” says Xing about OBI.  “As researchers, we thrive on learning and solving problems. But too often our knowledge gets stuck in the lab.  We’re learning how to ensure our work has impact and our discoveries are shared in a way that benefits everyone.”

OBI is seeking ongoing partnership and support for OBI Entrepreneurs.  Learn more.

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