Tony Chahine Founder and CEO, Myant Inc. examines how Toronto’s innovation ecosystem supported the creation of a revolutionary new technology.
In 2010 my dad was diagnosed with dementia. Like all families struggling with the disease, we were faced with a hard choice: should he stay at home, or should he go to a managed facility? And like many families, we put off making that decision for as long as possible. But then he started to get lost. On several occasions, the police were called. My siblings and I all lived far away, and we needed a way to keep an eye on him. So I began to think about how we could monitor his condition from a distance.
My first thought was technology. There are plenty of apps out there that allow people to keep a log of their symptoms by recording them on their phone. Maybe, I thought, this would allow us to keep track of him. But people with dementia often can’t use technology or input information in the same way healthy people can. They might struggle to understand the interface, or simply forget. So I started searching for a way to create a device that would work for someone like my dad. It had to record his condition all the time without requiring too much direct input from him; to be automated in some way. What's more, we and his doctors had to have access to that information.
But how could I guarantee that my dad would be carrying his phone or the right tool with him? Then the solution hit me: by incorporating it into his clothes. Since the 1990s there have been tremendous advances in materials science, without which we wouldn’t have things like touchscreens. I wondered whether there was a textile out there that was flexible, stretchable, washable and dryable, but that could also record data and connect to the internet. It turned out that such materials had been developed – cotton threads that were fully functioning transistors and semiconductors. But most of this research was locked away at universities and had never seen the light of day.
To realize this idea, I started a company called Myant. As the company gathered momentum, I had to do two things. First, I had to explain and promote the idea to global innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists and investors. In order to do so, over the years I have spoken at numerous technology, manufacturing and life-sciences events. Take CIX, Canada's largest technology-investment conference, which attracts global investors along with both early- and late-stage startups. In 2018, CIX chose Myant as one of Canada's 20 most innovative companies. This gave me a platform to present our technology to colleagues and investors across the science and tech sectors. Events like this are among the most efficient ways of demonstrating a new product or innovation. They are an ideal conduit for a new company trying to make its mark.
Second, I had to assemble a team of people who could help me bring my idea to market. This was not simply a matter of hiring staff for our office – where we now have 150 people – but also one of accessing a broader ecosystem of talent.
Fortunately, Toronto makes that easy. First, we partnered with MaRS, the largest urban innovation hub in North America. MaRS originally stood for Medical and Related Sciences, but it has expanded beyond this niche to become a start-up incubator specializing in advanced manufacturing, medical and biotech businesses. Through the MaRS network, we collaborated with doctors and researchers in the University Health Network, a series of Toronto hospitals, and the Southlake Regional Health Center, which validated our technology as we developed it. We also found fashion designers at colleges in the city, such as Ryerson and George Brown, and engineers at a local electronics company who could work with us on the textiles. When we began this project, we had no idea this kind of cutting-edge innovation could take place in Toronto, but then we lived it first-hand. We even went so far as to set up labs at the University of Toronto where this interdisciplinary R&D could take place.
Building our technology was all about the exchange of ideas and knowledge, and industry events at MaRS provided us with the opportunities for this. We would try something, test it, adjust it and test it again. When we didn’t know the answer to a question, it was easy to find an expert in Canada to help us. Attending events and conferences in Canada and across the disciplines we were working within was our way of building these partnerships, and it drove our business forward.
After years of work, we are now shipping our products to consumers in Canada and around the world. And we are still improving our technology. Later this year, we are launching what we call our "bi-directionality" features: the garments will not just read what is going on in the user's body, but will respond to that information too. The first of these is going to be a garment that heats up by itself, depending on the wearer’s body temperature. This could be useful for people with type 2 diabetes, many of whom have cold extremities, or those with arthritis, in which pain and stiffness can be soothed by warmth. If you heat the body a little bit, you can enhance the balance of the circulation and lower the heart rate, which benefits overall health.
Sadly, my dad is no longer with us. But my hope is that our garments will help others in his position by providing an easy way for them to keep track of their health and by giving them the confidence that they are being taken care of with 24/7 monitoring. And for the families of people with dementia, it’s a big relief to know that if there’s a problem, they will know about it right away.