Two years ago, James Dou faced a classic inventor’s dilemma: He’d developed a solution in search of a problem. His creation was a “lab-on-a-chip” technology that enabled him to put a chemical lab on a 30-by-40 milllimetre microchip. That chip, in turn, would provide a faster, cheaper and more efficient way to carry out analyses in the field that would usually be done in a dedicated facility. Potential applications included diagnosing infectious diseases, conducting food safety tests or measuring pollution. But which to choose?
Dou ultimately opted for installing the chip in a hand-held device that would allow health-care workers to diagnose AIDS in HIV patients and determine when to begin antiretroviral treatment. Such technology is particularly needed in sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately 22 million people live with HIV. Current diagnostic methods involve bulky equipment that needs to be transported in a vehicle. Results can take days, even weeks.
It’s a noble goal. And when coupled with the breadth of market opportunities the technology allows on top of fighting HIV, it helped to give Dou and his team the edge needed to win the third annual Great Canadian Innovation Competition, organized by this magazine and consulting firm Nytric Ltd. of Mississauga, Ont.
Dou, a 30-year-old University of Toronto PhD student in electrical and computer engineering, beat out more than 200 entrants to receive up to $50,000 in engineering services from Nytric, intellectual-property services valued at $10,000 from Toronto law firm Bereskin & Parr LLP, and business and financial advisory services valued at $10,000 from NBP, a Nytric subsidiary. “The [lab on a chip] is a very exciting technology,” says Anthony Gussin, Nytric’s director of business development and one of the judges in the competition. “The range of applications and the potential influence it could have on humankind is what put this ahead of the other products.”
The winner and his partners aren’t looking quite that far ahead — they still have to accomplish their goal of building HIV diagnostic equipment first. Dou is aiming to create a device as simple as the glucose meter used by diabetics. It will produce results within 10 to 20 minutes and incorporate wireless capabilities to transmit the information to a database, allowing individual patients and infection patterns to be closely monitored. It will also be inexpensive. Dou wants to sell the device for about $2,000, a bargain when existing equipment can exceed $35,000, all of which makes it ideal for use in developing nations where HIV is prevalent. “There are two rewards,” Dou says of his interest in the product. “You’re advancing technology, and at the same time you can help people out.”
Dou started the project in 2003 as a master’s student at U of T. He has since signed on two partners: Stewart Aitchison, the vice-dean of research for the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the university, and Rakesh Nayyar, a flow-cytometry specialist in Toronto. Flow cytometry is the process currently used to diagnose AIDS, and Nayyar impressed upon the two the need for a solution for the developing world.
Despite winning the competition, Dou says more funding is necessary to fully commercialize the product. That’s why he’ll soon be looking to hire a CEO for his newly formed company, ChipCare Corp. The group is well on its way to completing a prototype by the end of the year with the assistance of Nytric, and will then tackle the challenge of incorporating all of the components into a portable device in order to conduct a pilot project in Canada in 2010. “We have the guidelines on how to build the final system,” Dou says. “We can go ahead and do the real work now.”