Little did Kathy O’Donoghue know when she bumped into Dr. Martin McKeown at a fundraiser that the two might change Parkinson’s patient care forever.
She is a former EA game builder and self professed “technogeek” whose sister has Parkinson’s. He is a director of UBC’s Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre.
When their worlds collided in May, the idea for an app was born, an app that could improve Parkinson’s care through simple cognition games.
“I certainly like video gamers and techies using their skills to enable the medical industry. I think it’s such a strong story,” said Donoghue. “This is the time to connect the medical scientists with the computer scientists. I’m in if I can help.”
O’Donoghue, managing director of Surrey-based Conquer Mobile, spent about five years developing games at EA Games, including Need for Speed.
“In electronic arts, we built games that were commercial, sports games, so it’s a pretty good feeling to build technology that may help your family,” she told the Now. “I’m motivated to find a cure but I’m motivated to help in any way I can so that patients like my sister can have better access to care and to neurologists.”
Donoghue’s sister (pictured) plays her games every day and “thinks it’s pretty cool,” she said with a smile.
The app, CognitiaPD, is part of a large-scale Parkinson’s research study that will collect data through mobile games. The study, being led by a team from UBC, uses Conquer Mobile’s game to collect data and hopefully improve clinical care.
“No medicine is required, only a smart phone and a connection to the App Store,” said Donoghue. “It can be made available worldwide.”
The app uses two simple games to test cognition. One called Animal Snap focuses on attention, requiring players to tap the screen when an animal appears, thus checking response time. The other, Gift Shop, tests memory.
“For instance it’s like grocery shopping,” she explained. “An apple and a pear would appear on screen then you’d be asked to say which order they appeared. It increasingly gets more fruit or animals on the screen. Then it looks at whether you got the correct order.”
When patients play the game regularly, it allows their doctors to track their symptoms between visits and assess motor and cognitive changes over time, said O’Donoghue.
The app’s tracking of symptoms is helpful, O’Donoghue said, because Parkinson’s patients often go just once or twice a year for checkups, yet symptoms or response to medication can change dramatically in that time. If not addressed, people can end up in emergency rooms.
“This will result in faster response to patient symptoms and will also collect large amounts of data for research into disease progression,” said O’Donoghue.
The project was announced – and concept tested – at the World Parkinson’s Congress in Portland, Oregon in late September.
The next step is to distribute the game through Parkinson’s support groups to enable participation across North America before it can be launched in the App Store.
Dr. McKeown said what’s different about this project is this isn’t an “off-the-shelf” app.
“From the bottom up, we’ve designed something with Parkinson’s in mind. And if we were to sell it on the App Store, we foresee that money being folded back into Parkinson’s research.”
McKeown said it’s tough to get a full picture of a patient’s symptoms during a check up because symptoms fluctuate throughout the day, making it hard to get a true snapshot.
“It’s funny,” he told the Now, “if you look at other aspects of medicine, the cardiologists – the heart doctors – they’ve figured this out. Sometimes people can get a rare irregular heart rhythm… So what do they do? They send them home with a heart monitor for 48 hours and hope that over the 48 hours it will capture the rhythm. We don’t have anything like that for Parkinson’s… so we usually don’t have a full picture of what happens over time. And that’s quite critical.”
McKeown foresees two groups of people using the app.
“One group would be followed by our clinic so we could track their performance on these apps and make sure it’s linked to their healthcare records. But another group would be people who are not affiliated with the clinic and that data would be anonymized,” he said.
That data, McKeown explained, could help provide better understanding of the disease “with the end goal of integrating the information learned into clinical care.”
O’Donoghue smiles as she swipes through images on her iPad, looking for the best one to show off the Parkinson’s app she’s helped develop.
Behind her, through the boardroom windows of her second-floor office, is Surrey Memorial Hospital.
The location is intentional.
Conquer Mobile set up shop there in 2015 after Surrey’s establishment of Innovation Boulevard – a health tech hub of, you guessed it, innovation. The business is located in the epicentre of the “hub.”
The company has already brought one revolutionary product to market – PeriopSim, a simulation-learning tool for training surgical staff. Using surgical video with voice prompts, the app guide learners through procedures, step by step, all while timing and scoring them. For students and veterans alike, the idea is to increase efficiency and accuracy in the operating room.
Then there’s the company’s virtual reality version of PeriopSim, which uses HTC Vive VR with hand controllers to enable users to learn to recognize and handle instruments in a fully immersive environment.
The company also developed 3D scanning software which uses a (occipital structure) sensor attached to an iPad to scan the body and create a very accurate 3D model.
The 3D scanning software can be used for medical purposes such as measuring limbs for prosthetics. Basically, in a giant Rubik’s Cube, the app fills in the holes and creates a “3D selfie” of whatever is within its borders (pictured).
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O’Donoghue said it’s great to be situated in the heart of the health tech precinct when developing such products.
“Literally, the surgeons have come over in their scrubs to work over a design session with them,” she said. “It’s working for them also, they’re the ones saving lives and we’re enabling some of this technology. So it’s quite helpful.”
Conquer Mobile CEO Angela Robert told the Now in 2015 it was the “energy” that drew her to Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard.
“When you’re a startup company, you’ve got so much to learn and you have very little resources,” Robert said at the time.
Conquer Mobile opened in the City Centre 1 building at 13737 96th Ave. in April 2015. There, the business shares office space with others in the health tech field, including Philips, Back in Motion and Target Tape, but also with Kwantlen Polytechnic and Simon Fraser universities.
“Being in proximity of people really helps get things done quicker,” Robert said.
And they couldn’t get much closer. Surrey Memorial is just across 96th Avenue.
“We need clinicians to validate our product and they’re right next door.”
Innovation Boulevard was founded by the City of Surrey, SFU and Surrey Memorial Hospital with the goal of creating new health technologies to improve patient care and providing access to state-of-the-art equipment.
Dr. Peter Payne was part of Innovation Boulevard since its modest beginnings in 2013 – when it was just a concept.
“We spent a couple years saying, ‘What is this going to be?’” he told the Now.
Since then, 11 new companies have set up shop in the area, six new products have gone to market, 13 new prototypes have been developed, three clinical trials and 52 projects have been launched, and the area has seen $14.5 million of infrastructure investment.
“A lot of people are paying attention,” said Payne, who signed on as president and CEO of the Health Tech Innovation Foundation (HTIF) of Innovation Boulevard last June. “Roughly 33 companies have come through the HTIF program… so there’s some traction there.”
Payne acknowledged there has been some confusion about what Innovation Boulevard and HTIF actually are.
“(Innovation Boulevard) was an idea for a long time and it was mapped out as this region for economic development between the hospital and the new city hall, roughly a square kilometre. It’s more than that now,” he said. “Just last week, Innovation Boulevard Corporation (IBC) is officially formed. It’s now a legal entity. So IBC has the two main partners – the City of Surrey and SFU.”
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Meanwhile, the HTIF (also located in the City Centre 1 building, pictured above) was incorporated as a not-for-profit in 2014 with former mayor Dianne Watts serving as CEO until she ran for federal politics and won her bid to become MP for South Surrey-White Rock. Then interim CEO Ian Smith served until Payne signed on in June.
HTIF’s name is changing soon, Payne revealed, likely to Innovation Boulevard Alliance.
“The analogy we’ve come up with is Innovation Boulevard Corporation is like a hospital foundation – they are the money. Innovation Boulevard Alliance, if that’s what our name becomes, is effectively an operational group… The reason for setting it up that way is we are now at arm’s length from the city and SFU, with a separate board of directors, management, so we are allowed to apply for federal money, provincial money, private sponsors. So we have the seed money from SFU and City of Surrey and can leverage that up into a lot more money.”
While medical technologies have been the focus of Innovation Boulevard thus far, that’s not to say other industries are out of luck, revealed Payne.
“We’re looking for things that align with the strategic direction of the City of Surrey… things that are natural fits,” said Payne. “So things that promote human health – clean water, clean energy… And the idea is we’re going to partner, we see ourselves as a support organization.”
Thanks to Innovation Boulevard, companies are “incubating” in Surrey, but Payne is now focused on making sure they stay.
“We want the base here to be at SFU and Surrey because it’s where it all started,” said Payne. “We want to have local companies and ventures solving global problems. So we’ll start here in Surrey but what’s next?
“We’re really working on outbound and getting things into global markets,” he continued.
“We want as much of the money to stay here as possible. What we really need is a business reason to stay here. We’re very good at startups and what we’re starting to focus on now is, let’s give them a reason to stay – not just start here.”