Daniel Penn, co-founder and CEO, Shift Health

Every day, physicians ask patients the questions they think will elicit the best clues for a sound diagnosis. What they often don't ask for is contextual information about patients' lives that could lead to better clinical outcomes—and rarely do patients volunteer it. Toronto's Shift Health is changing this dynamic with a technology that enables clinics and hospitals to collect patient-reported data. We spoke to Daniel Penn, CEO and co-founder of Shift Health, about what sets his firm's technology apart and what the future holds.

Q: Tell us a little more about TickiT.
TickiT is an interactive mobile survey platform that prepares patients for a doctor's appointment while gathering useful data for physicians. We work with researchers to find the best ways to ask questions about certain health issues—for example, how to ask adolescents about substance abuse. We find out how to make the questions more approachable, and package them into survey tools. Patients answer them using a handheld device like an iPad, and the data are pushed directly to the health care provider in a way that helps them understand what the next steps of care should be.

Shift Health's flagship product, TickiT, which helps patients communicate better with their physicians

Q: Where did you get the idea for TickiT?
My mother, Sandy Whitehouse, was a physician specializing in adolescent health, and around the time I was graduating from university [in 2011], she was working on ways to help adolescents communicate with their health professionals about mental health issues. I looked at the prototype with some designers from Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and thought, "This is a really interesting concept that should be used in practice."

Q: Did your mother take on a role in the company?
Yes, we co-founded Shift Health together, and she's now the medical director. One of her instrumental roles is to validate new ideas. She's uniquely suited to that, because from experience, she has a deep understanding of the conversations that happen between adolescent patients and their doctors, as well as how hospital administrators see things. She really helps frame the concepts we come up with.

Sandy Whitehouse, co-founder and medical director, Shift Health

Q: When you decided to launch the company in 2011, were you sure the idea would be a commercial success?
No. It started as a research project, with me asking myself, "Could this change the way people do things?" I wanted the experience of working in this space and learning what it was like to build a company. But we very quickly attracted interest from organizations across Canada and beyond.

Q: Did starting the company feel like a big risk?
Not really, but risk is relative. I had just graduated from university, so I didn't have much to lose. I felt like the best job I could have was something where I could learn every day.

Q: What have been some of the company's biggest milestones?
We've had some of our greatest successes working with organizations that are looking to revamp or establish a behavioural health strategy. Behavioural health is mental health, substance abuse, and related issues combined, and it's an increasingly key component in health care. In terms of milestones, we've been on the market for about three years, and have doubled our sales. We now have about 30 clients across Canada, Australia and the US. But I would say our biggest milestone is around the corner—we're about to hit profitability.

Q: You're a comparatively young entrepreneur. What prepared you to launch a medical technology start-up?
I knew I wanted to go into business, and I was always more excited by side projects than by school. In university, I trained for ski racing three or four days a week, wrote a food blog, published several cookbooks and launched Happening Hamilton.ca, a culture and community blog. Several of those projects gave me an understanding of entrepreneurship and how to use social media to expand.

Q: As the company grew, what were some of the main challenges, and how did Ontario help?
We avoided venture capital funding at first so we could take the time to figure out what we were good at and where our value was—which meant we were entirely funded by friends and family. So it was great to be one of the first companies to get funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) Advancing Health program, which really helped kick-start our work. In the last few years, there's been a big push, especially with the OCE and the MaRS Discovery District. We are also part of the new MaRS co-development funding, a program in the form of a competition that attracts teams of health care providers and technology vendors.

Q: How else does Ontario support emerging life sciences firms?
Ontario has been great for finding talent. We're now up to seven core staff, and we have three co-op students and interns. They're all excellent, and finding them wasn't difficult. We have some of the top technology institutions in the world in this area—the amount of talent here is huge. Ontario has been key to our success. I don't think we'd be anywhere else.

Q: What would you say is the single best thing Ontario does to help companies like yours succeed?
A big part of it is the community here—the ability to talk to leading advisors and people who've done it before. The Ontario life sciences community here was really kind and supportive.

Q: What trends do you see in Ontario's life sciences industry sector?
I was reading the other day about how almost all the technology we now use has been built by young developers in Silicon Valley between the ages of 25 and 35. Think about that: a lot of the health care technology we have is being built by designers who don't interact with patients and might not be able to see things from the patient's perspective. Yet that empathy is so important. In fact, most of what we know about or believe in health care is at such an advanced level that it excludes most people from being able to participate. I think we should be looking at it the other way around—making it much more accessible to people, and having that fine-tooth comb of data at the other end.

Q: What advice would you give to someone considering launching a life sciences company?
Learn from people with different perspectives—the more people the better. Doctors, professors or other specialists all have different areas of expertise. Position yourself to say you don't have all the answers but are open to finding them, and then ask, “This what we are trying to do, does it make sense?” I've found that when you take that approach, people are quite willing to have those conversations.

Q: What does the future hold for Shift Health?
We anticipate steady growth and profitability. We expect continued doubling of growth, if not more, over the next few years now that we have a reputable customer base. We're starting to find out how to secure long-term clients who see us as partners. We're also looking to raise some capital to help with a market expansion into the $50-billion U.S market.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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December 14, 2016

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