Circle Innovation: Growing Canada’s technology businesses

Michael Fergusson (centre), Agoyo’s co-founder and CEO, with Rabia Ahmed, director of product design, and Elliot Stone, VP product management

Creating a mobile app that helps people manage chronic health conditions such as kidney disease has been a complex process for Ayogo Health Inc.

The Vancouver digital health company needed to bring together an expert advisory panel that included kidney specialists, clinicians, caregivers and older adults to provide input into its software, which can help patients and their care teams determine the best form of dialysis, for example.

Enter Circle Innovation, an AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub that works with companies to guide the development of their digital health and other technologies or services.

“They helped us make sure the technology that we deliver is useful and that it’s possible to actually sell it to the health-care system,” says Michael Fergusson, co-founder and CEO of Ayogo, which specializes in “behavioural economics”, tailoring digital support tools to suit people’s preferences and characteristics.

Launched in 2016 in partnership with AGE-WELL and Simon Fraser University (SFU), Circle Innovation is a Vancouver-based not-for-profit organization that helps technology companies connect with consumers, tech providers and others to solve research challenges, grow revenues and create jobs by developing emerging technologies.

“We break silos,” says Dr. Sylvain Moreno, CEO and scientific director of Circle Innovation. “With AGE-WELL we have developed a strategy of innovation for the country.”

A professor in the SFU School of Interactive Arts and Technology with a research focus on neurotechnology, the intersection of technology and the brain, Dr. Moreno knows well the challenges of the innovation process. As the parent of a child with learning disabilities, he invented and patented a software-based game that improves brain capacity through music. “But it was not in my skillset to be a CEO and run a company,” he recalls, so the startup and the product failed.

Determined to help other entrepreneurs succeed where he hadn’t, Dr. Moreno switched his focus to products for the aging population, inspired by a grandmother who had raised him and had difficulty navigating the medical system later in life. Along with AGE-WELL and SFU, he created Digital Health Circle, now renamed Circle Innovation, to surround scaling startups with an ecosystem of experts, vendors, technology providers and end-users who can help tackle common problems as they work to further develop and commercialize their products.

“A huge push is to have a patient partner or community partner involved,” says Dr. Carolyn Sparrey, a professor of mechatronic systems engineering at SFU and a member of the Circle Innovation board of directors.

Speeding up the pace of innovation

Dr. Carolyn Sparrey, Board member, Circle Innovation

Dr. Sparrey, who is head of SFU’s Neurospine Lab, which focuses on biomechanics and spinal cord injury, says Circle Innovation grew out of a CIHR Summer Institute on Aging hosted by the STAR Institute. It was there that she, Dr. Moreno and others learned about co-creation methodology, “which is core to what AGE-WELL does.” Critical to the model is engaging outside stakeholders and supporting industry involvement, she says. “Then you can really get to co-creation in a more complete way.”

Dr. Sparrey focuses on Circle Innovation’s research and training initiatives. She says the organization, with AGE-WELL’s guidance and leadership, is speeding up the pace of innovation through a network of experts and a dynamic funding model so technology products can be more quickly created and commercialized.

“There’s such a gap between the theoretical exercise, where you have a prototype and you’ve proven that it can do something useful, and all of the stuff that needs to be done to actually get it out to people,” Dr. Sparrey says. “This is filling that gap.”

Dr. Arvind Gupta, Board chair, Circle Innovation

Dr. Arvind Gupta, chair of the Circle Innovation board and a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, says that directing support to promising companies at key times in strategic industries is critical as Canada continues to try to build an innovation economy.

“Circle Innovation is essentially saying, ‘Instead of trying to support all companies equally, we should be looking at those that we think have high potential and putting resources into them,’” explains Dr. Gupta, former president of the University of British Columbia and former CEO of Mitacs.

He notes this model recognizes that small innovative companies are important economic drivers, and it encourages up-and-coming young researchers to get involved in social enterprises. “We need new ways of doing things, whether it’s developing an app for a tablet or figuring out how companies in this space can succeed. Innovation in programming is just as important as innovation in products and services.”

Dr. Moreno says Circle Innovation works nationally, given its access to the AGE-WELL network across Canada, “and I think we have so many great things that we can offer to the world here.”

Bringing the model to other sectors

Dr. Sylvain Moreno (left), CEO and scientific director, Circle Innovation, and Tom Philpott, Circle’s COO

Michael Fergusson of Ayogo feels the value of Circle Innovation is “they have been entrepreneurs themselves and they understand the difficulty of what we’re trying to do,” while AGE-WELL’s techniques, systems and processes have brought tremendous value to his company.

Ayogo released its pilot product in early 2022 in the U.S. and it has begun its initial implementations in Canada. Fergusson continues to contact Circle Innovation every couple of weeks to talk about the technology and the company. “They’re very creative about thinking, ‘How can we help here?’” he says.

Ayogo hopes to ultimately demonstrate its value “in ways that are more than just economic,” Fergusson adds. “The ultimate measure of our success is our impact on people’s lives.”

Circle Innovation itself has been successful in securing additional sources of financing. For example, Circle recently parlayed the seed money it received from AGE-WELL into $4.6 million in support from PacifiCan, the Government of Canada’s economic development agency dedicated to British Columbia.

Circle Innovation’s growth and economic impact ‒ overseen by a distinguished board of directors, including founding chair, Michael Harcourt, former BC premier and Vancouver mayor – is impressive.

Tom Philpott, Circle Innovation’s chief operating officer, says it has helped generate more than $62 million in new revenue or investment for its partners, form 37 participating companies, create 160 high-tech jobs and train 700 new workers, while taking 20 health technologies or services to market.

“These are highly unusual numbers and demonstrate excellent value for money,” he says.

Philpott says Circle Innovation is now looking at “testing our model in different geographies and sectors.” For example, it’s working to establish a presence in Ontario and Alberta and to support new types of industries. These could be fields that are still related to healthy aging and encompassed by AgeTech, he says, such as technologies that support nutrition for older adults or that reduce social isolation. Agricultural technology – or AgTech – is also a growing focus.

Any enterprise would benefit from working with Circle Innovation, says Ayogo’s Michael Fergusson. “It made Ayogo a better company.”

Image of Dr. Arvind Gupta by William Ye.

Updated on May 2, 2023