Training for new kind of neuro-talent

Ontario is recognized as a world leader in brain research but the province’s healthcare system and economy have room to benefit from stronger efforts in science innovation.  An asset that is of critical value but is often overlooked is access to the right kinds of people—in this case, people that have the skillset to move scientific ideas into the marketplace.

OBI aims to fill this key gap in Ontario’s neuroscience community through the Entrepreneurship & Management Training program, which consists of Entrepreneurial Fellowships and Graduate Opportunity Internships.  In addition to strengthening the support for its partners in the neuroscience cluster, this program helps demonstrate the capabilities of recently graduated academics since many doctoral and masters graduates have difficulty finding employment in traditional academic settings. The program creates a unique opportunity for graduates to work in a wide range of settings at some of Ontario’s top research institutions, businesses, and not-for-profits.

The Entrepreneurial Fellowships, which are awarded for up to 10 applicants on an annual basis, provide aspiring entrepreneurs with funding, mentorship, and access to professional services for the commercialization of a research-based innovation. They are also enrolled in a variety of workshops and seminars that promote the development of skills necessary for a career outside academia. Some receive support to commercialize their own research while others are matched with researchers from OBI’s Integrated Discovery programs to help advance existing technology still in the process of being developed.

As commercialization opportunities emerge from OBI-funded research programs, there are more opportunities to involve people with expertise in the development of prototypes and business planning. An example of this is the Anxiety Meter, developed at Holland Bloorview, now being commercialized by OBI entrepreneur Asim Siddiqi, in partnership with MaRS Innovation.

OBI aims to maximize the impact of research dollars by forging true partnerships with those in whom it invests, working closely with its research partners to better understand their needs and respond more quickly to the day-to-day challenges they face. OBI has begun to address gaps identified in the human resources of its partners by working with them to find the right talent match for their institution and providing wage subsidies for the employment of highly-skilled interns. In response to challenges that arise, special opportunity internships have been created as a result of the particular needs of partners.

An example of this is the neuroinformatics internship which was specifically created to support the big data objectives of the research programs. Neuroscience is a particularly diverse field and as the tools and technology for brain data collection advance, there’s been an increasing focus on the need to organize and share multidisciplinary data in a way that will deepen our understanding of the brain and brain disorders. This is precisely what the budding field of neuroinformatics is all about—it looks at the organization of brain data through the application of computational models and analytics tools.

The five Integrated Discovery programs were at different stages of data collection but all required help in preparing large datasets for transfer to OBI’s Brain-CODE informatics platform. Each internship was tailored to the needs of the individual research program so it is fitting that this year’s five neuroinformatics interns come from diverse backgrounds including: computer science, medical science, psychology, and kinesiology.

Above and beyond the hands-on training they have received on the job, the internship has also allowed them to view their skills in new ways. Sara Memar, who is soon to defend a PhD thesis in computer science at the University of Windsor, explains, “It’s exciting to be involved in cutting-edge research and it’s also really rewarding to look at my academic training in a different way. Prior to this internship I had not considered the possibilities of a career in neuroinformatics—I see new opportunities now, really interesting career paths that fill existing gaps”.

The program has been beneficial to both the interns and research programs—Lauren Switzer, Program Manager of the Cerebral Palsy Network (CP-NET) Integrated Discovery program says: “I was extremely lucky that Alex fit in with our team so seamlessly and quickly. So lucky in fact that now he’s working full-time in our lab in a number of capacities. Without someone in this role previously, it was challenging to envision what the intern could provide but once we were able to craft and describe his role, it seemed like a logical fit. He was able to move our data forward and within a short time, I felt like he had a strong handle on this for our many CP-NET projects”.

This April, OBI launched another set of internships with institutional technology transfer offices. This placement provides an extra resource to the research community looking to commercialize their discoveries. This internship was first piloted with a few different institutions this past year. Elizabeth Gray from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) mentored an intern and described their contribution as having “brought significant value to our team”. The work accomplished during the six-month placement “provided a great deal of support on many projects ranging from due diligence on CAMH technologies, Principal Investigator outreach initiatives, and website development,” says Gray who has now mentored three interns through the program. This spring interns will be placed with five institutions across the province—University of Windsor, CAMH, McMaster, Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto—in the hope of aiding the research community with commercialization initiatives.

It’s no surprise that OBI’s interns have experienced a follow-on employment rate of over 95%. By working together, the next leaders of the neuroscience community will be cultivated by today’s trailblazers in neuroscience research and commercialization. In turn, OBI’s partners are supported with the invaluable asset of a highly-skilled individual that helps drive their research and commercialization goals forward.

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