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The science of headaches

With support from Norman Esch Awards funding, Ryerson-incubated startup aims to revolutionize how migraines are diagnosed
By: Will Sloan
February 23, 2018
From left: Wes Leewis, Mario Garingo, Mark Doidge and Shiva Abdihagh

Photo: Ryerson master’s of engineering innovation and entrepreneurship graduate Wes Leewis (centre, left), is CEO of Headache Sciences Inc., with CTO Mario Garingo, president Mark Doidge, and software specialist Shiva Abdihagh. Photo by Clifton Li.

After a long career as president and founder of a variety of cutting-edge tech companies, many would transition to a relaxing retirement. Wes Leewis went back to school. As CEO of Headache Sciences Inc.,, external link he’s planning to commercialize a technology that could change the way migraines (and other headache types) are diagnosed. He and his team have built it through Ryerson’s Master’s of Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship (MEIE) program and incubated at iBoost, with funding from the Norman Esch Engineering, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Awards.

Though an estimated one in 10-12 people suffer migraines, the lack of objective testing and access to specialists has helped make under-diagnosis and under-treatment chronic problems. Headache Sciences has developed an objective electroencephalogram (EEG) based SaaS software as a service (SaaS) technology that can diagnose a migraine sufferer with 93 per cent accuracy. Recent advances in signal processing, data science and machine-learning will allowed the company to render a determination in minutes.

“We established a test group who truly experience the targeted disorder, and compare them with healthy control subjects,” said Leewis. “We then applied this 85-year-old technology, EEG, to extract data that is input to our machine learning algorithms.

“We’ve taken EEG data that a human being is incapable of sensing, analyzing and correlating. We filter it, we separate it, we evaluate it against our feature sets, and then we make a determination.”

The technology has the potential to significantly shorten patient health-care journeys and fast-track diagnosis for one of the most common and debilitating afflictions. “If you can establish the type and sub-type of headache, the treatment are available and often effective if delivered in a timely manner. It hard to believe that there are effective treatments for categories of headaches, however the issue is that the disorders can be are very difficult to diagnose,” said Leewis.

Leewis discussed several startup concepts with Rafik Loutfy (director of Ryerson’s Centre for Engineering and Entrepreneurship), agreeing to a partnership with veteran doctor Mark Doidge and a team, external link of Ryerson MEIE students to exploit the concept of AI as applied to diagnosing headaches. Leewis saw an opportunity by joining the MEIE program as a mature student: “We have a full business plan; we’ve established which of the 11 vertical markets we’re going to focus on. That was developed through the MEIE experiential process. We focused on customer discovery, and what it is we need to do to get this company off the ground. There is a process to entrepreneurship. … I had a leg up—I know how to write a business plan—but what we’re all learning about is the process of getting our technology commercialized.”

As a Stage 3, $25,000 (Market Readiness) Esch Award winner, the team’s funding allowed them to present at the International Headache Society Conference in Vancouver September 2017 and 4th Annual Conference on Computational Science and Computational Intelligence (CSCI'17) December 2017. “The most important thing the Esch award gave us was validation,” said Leewis. “Our Esch judges are experienced entrepreneurs. It also provided credibility: the Esch Award is a recognized award.”

The business is now collaborating with medical researchers and engaged with multi-disciplined clinics with a focus on commercialization. For Leewis, working through the MEIE was a chance to work with the next generation of entrepreneurs. “Having worked for over 40 years as a practicing engineer, I have seen the research and development components of large and medium sized organizations be severely down sized or eliminated. Research and development is by nature risky and requires a different set of management skills than that associated with delivering quarterly targeted results.

“To make thing’s worse Canadian second- and third-generation SMEs are fertile ground for larger international corporations to snap up, create a lot of income in a short term, and burn the organization in the longer term as R+D is often the first thing to go. Ultimately, Canada will lose if we do not help our young people create what will be new and innovative Canadian corporations.

“As a seasoned engineer, I want Canada to be successful, and I want young people to be successful,” he added. “The tools now available to engineers significantly reduce development cycles and project risks. We can even print our concepts in a day at minimal cost. I think the opportunities for young people are unbounded, and I think it’s the responsibility of my generation to help them get there”

Supported by the Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the three-stage Esch Awards offer a financial boost to Ryerson engineering and architectural science students with inventions, technologies, and startups. Since 2009, the foundation has given $2 million to support student entrepreneurship at FEAS, furthering the research, development and commercialization of ideas for 200 students and counting.

2017 stage-three Esch Award winners were honoured at FEAS’s annual Esch Foundation Day of Celebration on January 15. Other winners included CleanInWater, a company with an advanced oxidation process that provides a practical solution for non-biodegradable pollutants in industrial waste water; Everest, external link, an HVAC system that offers energy cost reduction using a cloud-based predictive controller; House of Anesi, designer and manufacturer of adaptable bras; and Odessu, external link, an online shopping tool that calculates accurate sizing.

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