Start-ups from the University of Toronto have been aiding in the prevention and relief efforts against COVID-19. In fact, one of these companies was among the first in the world to identify the novel coronavirus back in December 2019.
BlueDot, an infectious disease surveillance company, aims to protect people around the globe by using substantial amounts of anonymized data and artificial intelligence to forecast the spread of contagious diseases.
Dr. Kamran Khan, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, founded BlueDot in 2013 and is the current CEO of the company. Khan spoke to The Medium about BlueDot and how it has helped combat the coronavirus.
“BlueDot has built a digital global early warning system for infectious diseases that tracks threats from over 150 different pathogens and syndromes, and anticipates their potential for global spread,” stated Khan.
“Our system is built on several pillars. The first pillar is early detection of global epidemic threats,” continued Khan. In order to do this, BlueDot absorbs large amounts of unstructured data in 65 languages utilizing both machine learning and natural language processing.
“The second pillar is about anticipating dispersion,” added Khan. “This is where we connect the global location of outbreaks to the anonymized worldwide movements of travellers on commercial flights to other destinations around the world.”
Speed is essential for BlueDot—connecting the dots only takes a few seconds. “The insights that are generated are used to mobilize timely public health responses that optimize the use of our finite health and human resources,” said Khan.
The third pillar involves analyzing and communicating the data to end-users worldwide. “This is essential to building communities that are resilient to the health and economic impacts from epidemics and/or pandemics.”
BlueDot started as a start-up in 2013 and was cultivated by Khan’s research at the University of Toronto. His desire to start the company came after working in the front lines of the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto.
BlueDot has since partnered with the Government of Canada, the State of California, and Air Canada. The company is starting to produce metrics that will allow governments to better understand where social distancing regulations have been effective, if people have been following public health advice, and to know where to deploy valuable resources.
However, BlueDot isn’t the only University of Toronto start-up that has achieved success this year.
Iris, AIH Technology, and LCI Movement are a few Mississauga-based start-ups that have also been gaining traction. These companies were initially established with the help of ICUBE UTM, a hub for entrepreneurship training and start-up support.
“ICUBE UTM is an on-campus incubator and accelerator. It was founded in 2015 as part of the Institute of Management and Innovation,” said Kasey Dunn, the program coordinator at ICUBE UTM, in an interview with The Medium. “We were created to help foster an environment of innovation and to support our entrepreneurial students and alumni.”
Students can get involved with ICUBE UTM in two ways. “Our most popular way is the start-up program,” said Dunn. “It’s for students or alumni who have an idea of something they want to pursue. Maybe they’ve done some research about it, but it’s not a full-fledged business.”
The program includes an intensive boot camp, ongoing workshops, advising, and mentorship. “The workshops aim to develop skills in different areas of entrepreneurship: marketing, sales, research, idea validation, pitching, and more,” added Dunn.
ICUBE UTM focuses on businesses that have a positive social impact. “A lot of companies we help build, while they are for-profit, are social enterprises,” said Dunn. “Part of their purpose is to earn revenue, but additionally, they have a mission or goal that has to do with global impact.”
Established businesses can also get involved with ICUBE UTM in their Scale-Up program. “This program is for entrepreneurs who have a business on the market and are looking for support to grow, earn more revenue, and hire to expand their team,” said Dunn.
ICUBE aims to create an environment where students can gain work experience in small and innovative teams, which they can later use to start a business of their own.
“From an ICUBE perspective, we consider a successful business to have a balance between earning revenue, being sustainable, creating jobs, growing the business, and having a base value where you look at the impact you’re having through your business,” added Dunn.