Sept. 11, 2023
UCalgary-based program expands province-wide in supporting digital health researchers
For the first time, researchers in digital health from Alberta post-secondary institutions will all share access to expert support in translating research innovation into improved care for citizens through an expansion of the newly renamed SPARK Alberta program. The boost is thanks to a new grant from Alberta Innovates.
Launched in 2020 as SPARK Calgary, the program has been providing expert advice, education and ecosystem connections for evidence-based digital health innovations in Calgary for the last three years. Based out of the University of Calgary’s W21C Research and Innovation Centre, the program recruited its fourth cohort in spring 2023 and has worked with more than 70 faculty and researchers supporting 14 projects.
The SPARK model originated from Stanford University in 2006 with the aim of advancing research discoveries from academia to the health-care system. Now a global network of more than 60 academic institutions across six continents, SPARK Alberta represents the only active SPARK site in Canada.
Earlier this year, SPARK Alberta was awarded a grant by Alberta Innovates’ Ecosystem Development Partnerships Program. With this grant, SPARK will leverage its previous success in Calgary and expand the program provincially, further establishing Alberta’s reputation as a province with strong digital health innovation.
“This grant will allow us to offer our resources and expertise to faculty and researchers developing innovations from post-secondary institutions from across the province,” says Dr. Scott Kraft, MD, director of SPARK Alberta and clinical associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). “Our aim is to form a central network, linking and co-ordinating digital health innovation across Alberta’s post-secondary institutions.”
SPARK graduates have impact
The Calgary Pediatric Brain-Computer Interface Program (BCI4Kids) plays a pivotal role in addressing the challenges currently faced by thousands of Canadian children with neurological disabilities. These disabilities often hinder their ability to fully engage in daily life and exercise their fundamental rights to interact with the world.
Operating out of the Alberta Children's Hospital and affiliated with the CSM, the BCI4Kids program is led by Dr. Adam Kirton, MSc'96, MD, a CSM professor and technology solutions research lead for One Child Every Child, a UCalgary research initiative with a vision for all children to be healthy, empowered and thriving. BCI4Kids focuses on cutting-edge brain-computer interface (BCI) technology to provide children suffering from severe neurological disabilities with an avenue to achieve greater independence and an improved quality of life.
From the BCI4Kids program came a commercial venture called Possibility Neurotechnologies. Incorporated in October 2022, Possibility Neurotechnologies is dedicated to integrating BCI technology into everyday life, enabling those with severe physical disabilities to interact and communicate in transformative ways. In March 2023, the research team successfully graduated from the SPARK program.
Its flagship product, Think2Switch, allows individuals to control household electronic devices using only their thoughts. By creating user-friendly and accessible technology, the team aims to enhance independence and quality of life, making previously unimaginable interactions possible for those in need.
"Participating in the SPARK program has been an invaluable experience for Possibility Neurotechnologies,” says Dr. Dion Kelly, MBT’18, PhD'23, co-founder and CEO of Possibility Neurotechnologies and clinical neuroscientist at BCI4Kids. “The monthly check-ins served as crucial touchpoints, compelling us to regularly evaluate our progress and address setbacks head-on.”
Since joining the SPARK program, Possibility Neurotechnologies has achieved significant growth, including being accepted into the Remarkable Accelerator Program, receiving an equity investment from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, and showcasing its Think2Switch technology at international events. With a growing mailing list and a lineup of prospective customers, the team is preparing for a limited market release in Q1 2024.
Next steps for SPARK Alberta
One of the goals of the SPARK Alberta program is to create a community focused on supporting Alberta-made digital health innovations. By joining SPARK, participating teams are making meaningful connections with others in this community.
“The in-person presentations and events fostered a dynamic network with other startups in the digital health ecosystem,” says Dion. “Engaging with peers at various stages of development has enriched our journey, providing insights and camaraderie as we navigate the multifaceted process of growth and innovation."
Applications for the next cohort are open until Sept. 13. If you are a faculty member or researcher developing an evidence-based digital health innovation, visit the SPARK Alberta webpage to learn more about the program and to apply.
Scott Kraft is a clinical associate professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences and director of SPARK Alberta.
Adam Kirton is a professor and child health and wellness researcher in the departments of Pediatrics, Clinical Neuroscience and Radiology. He is a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the CSM. He is the One Child Every Child Technology Solutions Research Lead.
Dion Kelly is a clinical neuroscientist in the BCI4Kids Research Program.