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Edmonton’s Health City: Diversifying the Economy, Improving Healthcare

A local initiative wants to marry the city’s healthcare with its emerging technologies sector. The goal: improving lives and making Edmonton an international healthcare powerhouse.

Doctor typing information on Laptop in Hospital office focus on Stethoscope

When people describe the “Edmonton Advantage,” it can mean a lot of things. They could be talking about the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, its competitive taxes or the fact that the city’s culture and innovation attracts and retains talent from around the world. For Health City, an initiative that wants to turn Edmonton into an international powerhouse in healthcare innovation, the Edmonton Advantage is in the people in the city that are already making waves around the world.

Health City was founded as one of the many local efforts to diversify Edmonton’s economy; specifically, by taking strengths in Edmonton’s industry and technology sectors and marrying them with healthcare. The initiative started when the city saw that emerging technologies and healthcare were two key strengths. They wanted to find ways to connect them together for mutual benefit.

“Health City was started by looking at areas that Edmonton could potentially diversify into,” says Reg Joseph, the initiative’s CEO. “It was very clear that there are a number of strengths and assets in the health arena in this jurisdiction. In many cases, they are world-renowned, yet they are not having the impact that one would think for the caliber of those assets in terms of economic development. Health City was founded through a combination of need and the background, assets and capabilities Edmonton already has to drive these areas forward.”

Specifically, Health City wants to address health issues that are on the rise and not getting the right treatment through traditional medical procedures. Chronic diseases and issues, like diabetes and mental health, are usually treated in acute care systems, which Joseph argues is not the most effective route. Part of Health City’s mandate is to find better, more effective treatment options through important technological innovations that are already changing healthcare around the world, be it artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality or blockchain.

“There is a lot of change in terms of innovation, new technology and new tools that are looking at better ways of practicing, preventing and managing chronic disease,” Joseph explains. “These are key areas that will fuel the next health economy. We have significant strengths in those areas and we think there is a great opportunity to marry those capabilities with this impetus to change how we look at health. We want to prove them here and then export them around the world.”

Some of these technologies are already in Edmonton and, according to Joseph, “punching well above their weight” in terms of world renown and power. The trick is connecting these emerging technologies with the funding and resources they need to truly succeed. To this end, a large part of Health City’s mandate is in connecting people, companies, researchers and medical professionals together.

According to Ashif Mawji, a founder of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII), Health City is already proving useful to local computer science researchers, especially those working in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“Health City is helping bridge the gap between Alberta Health Services (AHS) and AMII grads, and providing governance models in ensuring a safe way to share health data while respecting privacy obligations,” he explains. “This is just one of the ways it’s assisting. It’s also providing ideas on what the real-world healthcare needs are so that the solutions developed will have commercial applicability.”

Health City’s budget was approved in the spring of this year and it spent the summer assembling its team. Even at these early stages, however, it has already attracted one significant multinational company: Hitachi. The international conglomerate will offer Health City and its partners access to datasets and analytics tools that will form the basis of many future projects.

“Hitachi is partnering with local companies to build a data engine that will let us look at disparate datasets,” explains Joseph. “We will draw new evidence and intelligence at how to look at health problems in a new way. That engine will be the platform and then we are going to layer on top of that a bunch of projects that are key to this region.”

While many of those projects are yet to be determined, the approach is already set. Joseph wants to bring together what he has dubbed “innovation consortiums” to discuss and ultimately put into practice innovative solutions for specific problems, whether they are the suburban opioid crisis, diabetes or other chronic medical issues.

“We have a number of key problems that have been identified in the field,” he says. “Now, what we want to do is put together innovation consortiums to help solve those problems. By doing that, we are going to tie in innovation and technology.”

Hitachi’s inclusion is especially important for much of the technological work happening in Edmonton, which relies on large amounts of data to help create algorithms and programs that can learn and adapt as needed. According to Mawji, data access is one of the biggest barriers currently facing researchers.

“We have tremendous wealth when it comes to data,” he says. “Now, we just need to release that data in a responsible manner and allow our creative minds to help solve the world’s greatest healthcare-related problems. We have the right talent to build world-class solutions – we just need the data.”

Douglas Cole, president of local virtual reality company 3Scape Systems, says another major barrier is funding and testing, something Health City will help facilitate in the future. “Funding is always the biggest issue. It would be ideal to have a mechanism to provide a consistent testing arena so the products can prove efficacy quickly,” says Cole. “The province under the leadership of AHS could provide technological testing, real-world validation, procurement support and therefore push our local innovations into the world marketplace.”

Looking forward, Johnson hopes to see Health City become an international phenomenon. Currently, it is focused on bringing large companies and experts to Edmonton, but he hopes to one day to take Health City’s expertise to other parts of the world to learn and connect.

“These problems are problems everywhere. What’s different are the circumstances,” says Joseph. “What’s happening in Manchester, for example, may be different to what’s happening here, but we want to see if what we are doing here can be applied or relevant elsewhere. Conversely, if there’s something happening in Sydney, is there something that we can learn from them?

“Essentially, what I want to do is what’s been happening in the IT world for the past 30 years. IT innovation happens anywhere around the world and then gets exported around the world. There’s no reason why we can’t do this with health as well.”