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Concordia’s District 3 startups harness emerging technology for the global good

Projects tackling mental health, infant mortality and marine conservation are featured as Quebec Science’s 2020 Inventions of the Year
November 6, 2020
Three young people, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, sitting against a yellow background.
Whale Seeker co-founders Antoine Gagné-Turcotte, Bertrand Charry and Emily Charry Tissier. | Images courtesy of District 3

The classic image of an entrepreneur shows them tinkering with laptops in a garage or a lab by themselves. But the reality is quite the opposite: they are usually interacting and working with multiple team members. And quite often, their shared fascination with science and technology serves as a tool to solve pressing problems in society.

Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Hub startups offer a useful example. The multidisciplinary teams work together with a mission and problem they want to solve that has the potential to affect millions of people across the globe.

And their work continues to get noticed. Three were recently selected as Quebec Science’s Inventions of the Year for their work to improve mental health, prevent perinatal asphyxia and preserve endangered whales.

“Building a successful startup is all about solving the toughest challenges in the world,” says Xavier-Henri Hervé (BEng 87, DSc 11), District 3 executive director. “Founders can have a global impact by harnessing emerging technologies, and it is exactly this passionate belief in their work that allows them to go through the difficulties of building a startup.”

Quebec Science launched its third annual contest for best inventions in March. The competition is a collaboration with l’Association pour le développement de la recherche et de l’innovation du Québec (ADRIQ), and the top selections were featured in the magazine last month. Of the six finalists, half were District 3 startups.

A young woman and man, smiling, in dark suit jackets. Aifred Health co-founders Marina Massingham and David Benrimoh.

‘A global need’

Mental health is a pressing issue worldwide, and all the more so in the context of rolling COVID-19 lockdowns. Aifred Health co-founders recognize a need for better managed and personalized treatments and are addressing this challenge using machine learning.

“Depression and anxiety alone is more than a trillion-dollar burden worldwide, so it’s a global need,” explains Marina Massingham, CEO of Aifred, which was founded by a multidisciplinary team of university graduates.

She says that while there are myriad treatment options, they aren’t one size fits all.

“Almost all treatments are effective, but there is individual variation in response to treatment, hence the need for artificial intelligence (AI) to do personalized matching of patients to individual treatments.”

How it works is patients answer short questionnaires about their mental health on a weekly basis. Aifred’s AI-driven app determines the optimal treatment for them, including the probability for remission.

The technology is completing successful pilots with doctors and patients from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, the McGill University Health Centre, the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal and the Centre intégré de santé et des services sociaux de l’Outaouais in Gatineau. It has also attracted partners at several universities in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Amidst a growing list of local and international accolades, the team continues to work with District 3. They are currently completing the Launch & Grow Program as well as MentorConnect, where a team of industry experts is helping them scale their growing startup.

Combatting infant mortality with AI

According to the World Health Organization, one million children die each year less than 24 hours after birth, often from perinatal asphyxia.

Ubenwa is a startup that Charles Onu founded to tackle this issue after coming face-to-face with it while working for a Nigerian non-profit organization. Blood tests can detect perinatal asphyxia, but the necessary screening equipment remains scarce in much of rural Africa.

Instead, Ubenwa is using AI to detect modulations in a newborn baby's cry that signals asphyxiation and could, in turn, save lives. By taking advantage of automatic voice recognition techniques, the emerging technology can identify most cases.

In 2017, Onu began an 18-month clinical study at the Montreal Children's Hospital, the Glen Site of the McGill University Health Centre and the State University Hospital of Science and Technology in Enugu in northeastern Nigeria. The goal was to further the reliability of the technology.

The District 3 founder says his goal now is to compress his artificial neural network so that it can run autonomously on a mobile device to increase accessibility in remote areas.

Aerial marine animal detection in real-time

Montrealers will remember the ill-fated humpback whale that was first spotted in late May near the Jacques-Cartier Bridge and met its demise downstream a couple weeks later. District 3 startup Whale Seeker aims to revolutionize visual whale detection. It’s something the co-founders say is mainly done using the human eye.

This, they point out, is expensive, imprecise and slow. Governments process photographs taken during surveys by hand with no comprehensive tool to successfully manage whale conservation and marine traffic. Months or years can go by before the data is analyzed and action taken.

Whale Seeker uses deep learning to offer rapid marine mammal detection tools, advanced image analysis and data management solutions. These technologies can be custom-tailored to clients’ specific needs and workflows — be they arctic monitoring, government wildlife management, shipping, oil and gas, militaries, conservation groups, ports or tourism.

“What we really love about District 3 is that despite our unique startup, we’ve received support to grow our company in the way we always intended,” says co-founder Emily Charry Tissier. “Our coach has been a cheerleader, a sounding board, someone who has empowered us with ideas for growth.”

If you are interested in exploring entrepreneurship and building your world-changing startup, discover the
many programs available at Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Hub.

Stay tuned for the latest District 3 news, open events and workshops on LinkedInFacebookTwitter and Instagram.


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