Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO and Co-Founder of Braze Mobility appeared as a guest speaker at AGE-WELL’s National Conference in Vancouver last year. See how she created a new technology to help power wheelchairs and scooters detect obstacles, helping older adults increase their spatial awareness and maintain their independence. Watch the video for some notable highlights.
You can find out more about all the important work AGE-WELL is doing here.
More experts and disruptors will be on hand at the AGE-WELL’s 5th Annual National Conference in Moncton, New Brunswick, from October 22–24, 2019. Get all the details here.
Launched in 2015 through the federally-funded Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program, AGE-WELL NCE (Aging Gracefully across Environments using Technology to Support Wellness, Engagement and Long Life NCE Inc.) is Canada’s technology and aging network. AGE-WELL is dedicated to the creation of technologies and services that benefit older adults and caregivers.Read More
Building a startup company is a daunting prospect – often more so if you’re a woman. But things may finally be starting to change.
That was one takeway from a panel discussion, held on the eve of International Women’s Day, featuring three female founders from the University of Toronto.
While all three panellists – Leila Keshavjee, Saara Punjani and Pooja Viswanathan – acknowledged the myriad challenges women founders still face in the business world, two of the entrepreneurs said gender had relatively little to do with the roadblocks they faced while trying to launch their companies.
“I’ve been lucky to not have the fact that I’m a woman get in my way,” said Punjani, who is the chief operations officer at Structura Biotechnology, which uses artificial intelligence to help pharmaceutical companies visualize proteins for drug discovery.
She attributed her positive experience, in part, to the support of her team, which includes Structura co-founder and CEO Ali Punjani – her brother.
Viswanathan, meantime, credited the fact she had a PhD when she started building “smart” wheelchair company Braze Mobility for helping to dull any gender discrimination she might have faced while dealing with male clients and investors.
“We’re in a good place right now – we’re seeing a lot of support,” said Viswanathan, citing various entrepreneurship programs at U of T and elsewhere in Ontario.
The discussion, part of the RBC Innovation & Entrepreneurship Speakers Series, drew a crowd to U of T’s ONRamp co-working and collaboration space on College Street. It was moderated by Professor Christine Allen of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, who is involved in two startups herself.
Referring to the new ground each panellist was breaking in their respective sector, Allen called the three entrepreneurs “female pioneers.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all smooth sailing gender-wise for the panellists.
Keshavjee said she definitely felt like she was treated differently while trying to get her all-natural ice pops company Happy Pops off the ground. She even recalled dealing with a businessman who didn’t believe Happy Pops was actually her company.
With a bachelor’s in kinesiology from U of T, Keshavjee said things began to change last fall after she appeared on the season premiere of the CBC program Dragon’s Den, walking away with a deal with Arlene Dickinson. But while the show helped elevate her personal brand, Keshavjee said she feels for women entrepreneurs who don’t get similar opportunities.
“Women shouldn’t have to go through that to be credible,” she said.
The bulk of the evening, however, was spent talking about the specific challenges each panellist faced while trying to turn their ideas into a money-making enterprise.
Viswanathan called the experience “terrifying” because she had no idea what to expect each morning when she woke up – a feeling she said continues to this day. Even so, Viswanathan said she is “laser-focused” on trying to solve a problem after witnessing, as an undergraduate student, residents of a long-term care facility slumped over their wheelchairs and unable to get around.
Her solution? Sensors and software that help motorized wheelchair operators navigate their environment, giving them back their freedom.
She heaped praise on the Impact Centre, one of nine on-campus entrepreneurship hubs, for helping her problem-solve a way to a viable product.
“For me, as someone with no business background, that was a home away from home,” she said.
Punjani, similarly, said Structura tapped into the vast expertise at U of T – both while trying to build a product and for getting advice on how to deal with Big Pharma customers. She said the startup received support from UTEST and the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab, or DCSIL, and is benefitting from being based at the nexus of the Toronto’s burgeoning innovation ecosystem.
“We’ve been fortunate to work with some of the incubators and accelerators here – and through ONRamp,” she said. “That proximity really helps.”
As for Keshavjee, she also credited the Impact Centre for helping her launch Happy Pops, despite the fact that it’s not a typical, research-based university startup. “They really helped me grow the business,” she said.
That growth appears set to continue. After working with Dickinson’s packaged-goods focused accelerator in Calgary, Keshavjee is now preparing to relaunch the brand this spring.
“We’re projecting half a million in sales this year,” Keshavjee said. “I knew the day would come when we didn’t just have a seasonal business – where it wouldn’t just be a summer treat for kids.”Read More
Braze Mobility uses sensors to help motorized wheelchair users avoid collisions with the obstacles that surround them. Now, with its latest product, Braze hopes to one day help eliminate the obstacles themselves.
Pooja Viswanathan, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto and the CEO and co-founder of Braze, says she’s hoping to use the data collected by her startup’s sensors, which can be attached to motorized wheelchairs, to create a sophisticated data analytics platform.
The crunched data could then be used by clinicians, insurance companies and even city planners when making decisions that could impact wheelchair users.
“This could collect data on where collisions are actually happening in the environment,” Viswanathan told attendees at a recent health-care pitch competition.
Braze was one of four startups to take home $7,000 in prize money at H2i’s HealthEdge Challenge. The competition is organized by three U of T accelerators – Health Innovation Hub (H2i), The Hatchery and the Department of Computer Science Innovation Lab (DCSIL) – and is designed to encourage innovation to address real-world health-care problems.
Also taking home a prize was surgical device startup Xpan. The company, co-founded by U of T biomedical engineering alumnus Zaid Atto, makes an expandable version of a surgical device called a trocar that’s used to create a tunnel into the abdomen for laparoscopic surgeries.
At present, surgeons must swap out trocars if they need to insert larger instruments, which can slow down procedures and raise the risk of complications, Atto said.
The other two winners of this week’s competition were Sunny Stroke, which connects physicians providing care to stroke patients and was represented by U of T biomedical engineering graduate student Shaurya Gupta, and Opti-fold Cosmetics, which makes a special tape to encourage double eyelids and is led by Ray Tang.
In addition to the cash, the four winning startups will receive further support from the accelerators supporting HealthEdge competition as they fine-tune their business plans.Read More
Braze Mobility Inc. has launched an add-on system that can transform a regular wheelchair into a “smart” wheelchair able to help prevent collisions.
The novel system uses sensors to detect obstacles and provides visual, audio or vibration feedback to drivers. It can be added to any powered or manual wheelchair.
“Rear visibility and manoeuvering in tight spaces are real issues with mobility devices―and collisions can result,” said Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO of Braze Mobility. “Our obstacle-detection system is designed to increase safety, independence and quality of life for people living with mobility impairment.”
Two versions of the product―the Braze Hydra and Braze Sentina―debuted yesterday at the AGE-WELL Annual Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. AGE-WELL, Canada’s Technology and Aging Network, has supported Braze through its Strategic Investment Program.
Incorporated in 2016, Braze has also received support from the Ontario Brain Institute through their ONtrepreneurs program, the Ontario Centres of Excellence, the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), the Impact Centre at the University of Toronto (U of T) and Semaphore Research Cluster at U of T.
Herman Witlox, a powered wheelchair user who helped to Beta test the obstacle-detection system, called it “a lifesaver” that helps him avoid collisions with people and property that can happen when changing directions or backing up, for example.
“It gives you an awareness and a sense of security,” said Witlox, who has continued to use the system and is involved with a company that will be one of its distributors.
The system can now be ordered at www.brazemobility.com by institutions such as hospitals, long-term care facilities and seating clinics across North America. Direct sales to individual consumers will follow.
For Dr. Viswanathan, a postdoctoral fellow in computer science at the University of Toronto and an AGE-WELL highly qualified personnel, the launch of the new system is a personal milestone. She has worked for over a decade on collision-avoidance systems for wheelchairs.
“Anyone who uses a wheelchair can benefit from this system, which will be particularly useful for people with low peripheral vision and limited neck and upper body flexibility” she said. “One of our testers says he feels like he has eyes on the back of his head with this technology. He says that it’s ‘got his back.’
“And for people who are excluded from using powered wheelchairs, including some older adults with dementia, the system will widen access to mobility devices, giving new opportunities for independent mobility,” says Dr. Viswanathan, who co-founded Braze Mobility with Dr. Alex Mihailidis, a Toronto Rehab/University of Toronto scientist and scientific director at AGE-WELL.
Braze is generating jobs as well as products. Nine people are involved with the company, including contractors and interns. Graham Browning, a recent engineering graduate from Ontario’s University of Waterloo, is now a product manager. He took the position at Braze over other offers.
“A big motivating factor was wanting to make a positive impact in people’s lives,” he said.
Braze has earned recognition at several recent pitch competitions. The company captured cash prizes after coming first in the POWER PLAY pitch competition (hosted by Toronto Rehab Foundation, in partnership with the iDAPT Centre for Rehabilitation Research and AGE-WELL), the CNE Innovation Garage, and a competition hosted by the Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization (OBIO).Read More