What is a day in the life of a neurosurgeon like? A simple Google search reveals a lifestyle and workday that few of us in the nine-to-five world can even fathom: eighty-hour workweeks, critical consultations, myriad emergencies, and hundreds of surgeries per year, not to mention the perpetual flow of paperwork. And while no two days are the same, each has one common factor— the matter of life and death is constantly in your hands. For neurosurgeons, it’s not just a job but a calling – one that drives them to save lives and improve patient outcomes.
Co-founded in 2012, Toronto-based Synaptive Medical understands that calling. Its flagship product, BrightMatter, is a suite of state-of-the-art solutions designed to help neurosurgeons plan the safest, most effective route through a patient’s brain while providing advanced visualization during surgery. The following is an interview with two of the firm’s co-founders, Cameron Piron (President) and Wes Hodges (Director of Informatics and External Collaboration).
Q: What inspired the idea behind Synaptive’s technology?
Cameron: My fellow co-founders and I also worked together at Sentinelle Medical Inc., which was focused on breast and prostate imaging, and we were excited to look at the neurosurgical arena next. The idea emerged from challenges we saw in operating rooms—there was a lot of opportunity to improve both the quality of information available to surgeons as well as how they use it.
Q: What led you to believe the technology would be a commercial success?
Cameron: There was such a gap between what we thought we could achieve and what we were seeing out there commercially. And as we started launching our products into clinical partner sites, we started seeing successes that were meaningful and changed patient outcomes.
Q: Can you give an example of how BrightMatter has helped a patient?
Wes: One of the surgeons we work with had a case where a woman had been hit by a truck. She had some serious injuries, including an aneurysm that required surgery. Using our planning software, surgeons were able to choose the trajectory into her brain that would cause the least amount of deficit. She left the hospital fully functioning. We felt like we were part of that success story.
Q: How did you feel after you launched Synaptive?
Wes: Like we were standing on the edge of something—exhilaration, but trepidation as well. Smaller, nimble companies are less structured and more flexible, and that’s where we’re happiest. We like wearing many different hats, having a variety of responsibilities and tackling different challenges. When we launched Synaptive, it was really refreshing. It’s hard work, like hacking through the jungle with a machete, but we love it.
Q: What challenges does the medical technology sector face in general?
Cameron: One is regulatory approvals. It’s critical because you need to be able innovate in your own backyard. That is, Canadians should enjoy the benefit that everyone else in the world is seeing from our products. I’d say the government is making progress on that. Access to growth capital is a second challenge. Traditionally, Canada has been very focused on natural resources, banking and insurance. But the financial support and institutions for those are very different from the growth capital needs of high-tech. The Office of the Chief Health Innovation Strategist within the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care is really focused on addressing that. I think this will also improve as the investor community grows. When larger high-tech companies become interested in medical technology, large private equity firms take notice. If a Google, Apple or Amazon becomes interested in an area, the money usually follows. I think we’ll start seeing that trend soon in Ontario.
Q: What are your views on Ontario’s life sciences sector—was it the right decision to establish here?
Cameron: Yes, Ontario has always been our power base. I think the ecosystem here really encourages entrepreneurialism. There are great programs that support companies in their growth. Growing in Ontario has been positive for us. For example, MaRS didn’t exist when we founded our first company, but as soon as it opened its doors, it offered a home for budding start-ups like Synaptive. It was where we strengthened our base, expanded our operations, and now here we are moving out of its premises as a full-fledged medium-size organization.
Q: What would you say are Ontario’s key value propositions for life sciences companies?
Cameron: I think the world-class talent here is exceptional. Synaptive has really benefited from it. Because of our rapid growth, we know how limiting it can be when you don’t have that. As well, the fact that big international technology companies are moving into the medical field and starting to have a presence in Ontario is encouraging. Ontario has long offered solid support for research and development in the medical device industry—whether it’s grants, tax incentives or initiatives to support growth and innovation.
Q: What important trends do you see in the medical technology sector—in general and in Ontario?
Cameron: A general trend worldwide is value-based care delivery. Another is getting more information around a patient’s care cycle and having that information guide decision-making. Quantitative imaging is a big part of that. We’re seeing the advent of very large companies—the likes of Google or IBM—attracted to the opportunity to facilitate this trend. Ontario has a long and unique history with innovation around imaging and intervention. We see opportunities in bridging the divide between the interest in artificial intelligence and neural networks to help support decision-making.
Q: In your opinion, what is the single best thing Ontario does to help SMEs?
Cameron: It’s offering well-designed, sustained programs, such as initiatives for research or talent development. The sustainability aspect is important, so growing companies can build strategic plans around them. The Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) immediately comes to mind as an example here.
Q: What advice would you give to another scientist or entrepreneur considering launching a life sciences company?
Cameron: Find a contextually relevant mentor with success in the space where you want to innovate. Whether it’s pharma, informatics, genomics or medical devices, having someone who’s been there before and can guide or connect you is essential. That way, instead of walking through the dark with your hands out moving slowly, you can accelerate and move quickly.
Wes: You also need a solid work ethic, and you have to love what you do. Also, be willing to make mistakes. You will never have all the information you want, so just pick a direction, act on it, and course correct quickly as needed.
Q: What are your plans for Synaptive’s future?
Cameron: We have a pretty exciting chance to expand the feature set on all of our products. We also have new first-in-class products that we plan to launch. And then there’s the opportunity to link all of these technologies together to achieve something very different.