Search impact stories
Video Content: 

Calgary medical start-up taps into research talent through Mitacs

At a glance
The challenge

Breathing-related sleep disorders contribute to greater health problems such as depression and heart disease

The solution

New tools to treat high upper-airway resistance (HUAR)

The outcome

Non-invasive device for diagnosis at home

What's next?

Intern was hired, Zephyr Sleep Technologies accesses new markets

Many of us know what it’s like to wake up in the morning feeling unrested and groggy to start the day. But for those who suffer from breathing-related sleep disorders, the recurrent bouts of inadequate sleep may lead to depression, diabetes, or even heart disease.

Despite this, many patients who have problems with the quality of their sleep do not seek medical diagnosis, and when they do, diagnosis and initiating treatment can be an arduous process that is disruptive, uncomfortable, and inconvenient.

Enter Zephyr Sleep Technologies. The Calgary-based medical start-up develops devices that help doctors guide patients towards the best treatment for breathing-related sleep disorders. Their primary focus has been obstructive sleep apnea, and providing a test that can accurately select patients for treatment with an oral appliance. Today, the efforts of their research and development team is aimed at the development of tools and techniques to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of a commonly misunderstood disorder called high upper-airway resistance (HUAR), a condition whose symptoms can be mistaken for sleep apnea.

However, it was the expertise of two Mitacs Accelerate interns from the University of Calgary that accelerated the launch of Zephyr’s products into the fledgling market of HUAR.

Early in the development of their HUAR tools, the company identified a need to tap into the expertise of a researcher with an understanding of acoustics and sound processing. Having been introduced to Mitacs’ programs through their local Business Development representative, the company was paired to Ali Zareian, a PhD student from the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at the University of Calgary.

Under supervision from Professor Qiao Sun, Ali worked closely with the Zephyr R&D team to establish the methods needed to develop a non-invasive device to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of HUAR in the home. His original internship was extended from 4 to 8 months, with Ali taking on additional responsibilities and working in tandem with another Mitacs intern as the project scope began to grow. Zephyr recognised the value of Ali’s expertise within their research team, and then hired him to continue to lead work on the project full time.

For Sabina Bruehlmann, Zephyr’s Director of Technology and Operations, the value of the collaboration was evident.

For a small company like us, Mitacs Accelerate has been a key part of tapping into specialized expertise. Since joining Zephyr, Ali has become a leader in our R&D team, and his research has contributed to products that Zephyr hopes will bring relief to many sufferers, and that will in essence double our target market.”

The company has seen such value from the program that they plan to take on another Mitacs Accelerate intern in the coming months, this time with Ali acting as the on-site supervisor. “For us, turning to Mitacs for this upcoming project was an easy decision,” says Bruehlmann. “Mitacs is focused on providing the help that companies need to continually innovate, and makes applying to this sort of research grant simple and quick. We know we’ll get access to the sort of expertise that is key to our company’s continued growth.”

Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, the Networks of Centres of Excellence's Industrial Research and Development Internship Program, the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, along with Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, the Government of  British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of  New Brunswick, the Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland & Labrador, the Government of  Nova Scotia, the Government of  Ontario, the Government of  Quebec, and the Government of  Saskatchewan for their support of Mitacs Accelerate.