J. Breanne EverettOrpyx

J.Breanne Everett – Winner of the Governor General's Innovation Award

The Governor General's Innovation Awards recognize and celebrate outstanding Canadian individuals, teams and organizations — trailblazers and creators who contribute to our country's success, who help shape our future and who inspire the next generation.

The importance of taking the wheel

Most medical residents can barely keep up with the constant demands and long hours spent in specialist training, hospital rounds and patient care. Dr. Breanne Everett added to these pressures during her residency in plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Calgary by inventing a new medical technology, starting a company and getting an MBA.

Everett was motivated to move into the medical device business after seeing the burden that foot complications common among people with diabetes place on patients and the health-care system, especially in the aging population. Stemming from her research and treatment of wounds, she developed a special insert for shoes that provides feedback to help wearers with reduced sensation in their feet from neuropathic illnesses avoid ulcers and other pressure injuries. The patient responds to cues and alerts that come via a smart watch, for example if a shoe is too tight or there's a foreign body that's going to cause a sore.

"This is a major issue," says Everett. Of the eight per cent of patients with diabetes, one-quarter will develop foot ulcers; one in five will lead to amputations. The tissue breakdown is exacerbated by neuropathy and vascular problems, she says. "It's hard to get ahead of it."

She was determined to combine diabetic foot care and neuroplasticity to address the problem, taking a leave of absence from the residency in 2011 to pursue her MBA and co-found and become CEO of her company, called Orpyx. The name is an anagram of "proxy", because its product, called the SurroSense Rx, serves as a proxy for the sensation that's been lost, explains Everett.

Everett, 31, credits her parents for encouraging her creative and entrepreneurial talents, and is a Loran Scholar, receiving financial assistance for her undergraduate degree in biochemistry at McGill University from the Loran Scholars Foundation. She's also benefitted from its continuous mentorship and focus on life-long learning.

She says there's resistance to change in the medical community, with little culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. "As front-line health-care providers, we see the issues and deficiencies. Who better to identify where innovation needs to exist?" she says. "But we haven't been the people to carry the ball forward."

She was among the first in her program to step aside from a residency, but was fully encouraged to bring her idea to life. She felt she could make it happen, even as a rookie.

"It doesn't take a career in medicine to identify problems that are so prevalent in the health-care system," she says. "I had a sceptical set of eyes," she comments, as well as a "naïve energy" in identifying areas that could change. "You have to capitalize on that energy."

She hopes she's created a precedent; indeed at least three others have suspended residencies to start businesses in their own spaces. "That is exciting," says Everett, who volunteers for Joule Inc., a company recently started by the Canadian Medical Association to encourage and financially support physician-led innovation.

Running Orpyx "is a lot of work but it's very rewarding," says Everett, recently started a family and who loves to spend time with her two sons, who are 1 and 2 years old. She plans to return to the residency.

The company today has 12 employees. Three-quarters of its funding has come from investors, with the rest from grants and awards from organizations such as the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program and Mitacs Canada, which encourages partnerships between academia and industry. "We apply for everything we can."

She says the integrated care models in provincial health-care systems support innovations such as hers, with a direct relationship between the body implementing the technology and benefitting from savings. The preventative aspect of the product should be especially compelling for a health-care system stretched with caring for people with chronic disease. "It feels like a no-brainer."

Her advice to other would-be medical innovators is "you have to take the wheel," she says. "Seeing a problem and having a solution in mind and knowing that somebody's got to do it, why can't it be you?" It's equally important to put together a solid health-economics case.

Everett thinks wearable technology such as step monitors "has run its course," mostly because people get bored of the "so-what data" collected. "If it's not actually fixing a problem, there isn't a reason to continue using it over time," she says, while her device "addresses a real problem that exists, preventing amputation."

Clinical trial results of the SurroSense Rx "have really exceeded our expectations," she says, with a reduced rate of re-ulceration, for example. The product is already on the market, and Everett would like to get it "on the feet of everyone who could potentially benefit," covered by insurance and government plans. "There are tremendous cost-savings that can be made."

With the ability to measure and precisely quantify movement, the device can be used for any condition that affects gait and balance, such as multiple sclerosis and other degenerative diseases, where patients often end up in wheelchairs prematurely because they have trouble with balance, Everett adds. Other applications include sports performance optimization and injury prevention.

This success story is provided by the Public Policy Forum – an independent, non-governmental organization dedicated to improving the quality of government in Canada through dialogue among leaders from all sectors of Canadian society.

Photo credit : Colin Way

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