Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and to the Minister of Health, announcing the AGE-WELL National Impact Challenge in Ottawa on May 2, 2018. Photo: AGE-WELL.

Technology is tackling common issues faced by aging Canadians in a big way. That could mean a smart sensor, a robot, mobile phone app or a website. It starts with an idea, a solution to a problem, or a fresh way of looking at a challenge.

To inspire both established and would-be inventors, AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network, launched the National Impact Challenge. “We are always looking for new ideas and new ways of thinking to help support healthy aging,” says Dr. Alex Mihailidis, AGE-WELL’s scientific director.

(From left to right): Dr. Andrew Sixsmith, scientific co-director, AGE-WELL; Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and to the Minister of Health; Mimi Lowi-Young, Member, AGE-WELL board of directors and Dr. Alex Mihailidis, scientific co-director, AGE-WELL. Photo: AGE-WELL.

The organization, a federally funded Network of Centres of Excellence, is focused on creating innovative technologies and services that support healthy aging. It is inviting innovators to submit a video (five minutes or less in length) that describes how their technology-based idea could positively impact older people or their caregivers. AGE-WELL will upload the videos to its website and welcomes members of the public to vote for their favourite.

The top five contestants (one from key geographic zones across the country) will have the chance to pitch their idea live during AGE-WELL’s annual conference, being held later this year in Vancouver from October 16 to 18. They’ll be joined by three wild-card contestants as chosen by AGE-WELL’s education and training program, which will select a young innovator, a favourite idea as picked by AGE-WELL’s Older Adult and Caregiver Advisory Committee, and finally, the submission whose video generated the most activity and mentions on social media.

Previous AGE-WELL competitions have been aimed at researchers, students and companies. “We wanted to do something different with this competition,” explains Dr. Mihailidis. “We wanted to, first of all, open up the competition to the general public. We wanted to remove as many restrictions as possible and make it as easy as possible for someone to submit their ideas to us. Secondly, we wanted to make our competition have a focus on the future of the field and have people submit their ‘blue sky’ ideas.”

The challenge will likely generate stiff competition, as innovators compete for more than $100,000 in cash and in-kind prizes to research, develop, disseminate or commercialize their ideas.

“I encourage all Canadians to get involved in the National Impact Challenge by applying their knowledge, creativity and common sense,” said Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Health at the launch event on May 2 in Ottawa. “I am confident we will find exciting new solutions to the challenges faced by seniors in Canada and throughout the world.”

So what types of ideas is AGE-WELL hoping to see?

The organization currently supports more than 70 projects across Canada, created by researchers working with companies, not-for-profit groups, caregivers, older adults and others. Innovation is the underlying theme in each. For instance, researchers in Ottawa are working to develop a “smart bed” that uses sensors to detect symptoms linked to various health issues, such as a lack of movement during sleep (which can lead to pressure ulcers) and the unusual breathing patterns associated with sleep apnea.

In another project, members of the Nak’azdli First Nation in northern British Columbia have launched a pilot to digitally preserve Elders’ knowledge. Students in grade 6 and 7 are recording their Elders’ stories, then adding music, photos and other multimedia elements. The project’s partners hope to make this intergenerational storytelling activity part of the school curriculum.

AGE-WELL is also funding testing of a virtual gym in Edmonton and Fredericton, which is designed to provide personalized fitness instruction to people in their homes. That could be useful for anyone who has trouble getting to a bricks-and-mortar gym, including parents with young children, people with mobility issues and those in rural locations.

As Blair pointed out in his speech, technological innovations initially aimed at older Canadians can have an impact far beyond that group: “Everyone benefits when we embark on a project like this. Our economy benefits in the development of patents, products and services. Our health sector benefits by reducing the burden on our limited resources. And we all benefit as Canadian citizens because one day, we aspire to age well.”

Are you ready to channel your inner Silicon Valley titan and use your video skills to get the funding for your big idea? Get out your smart phone and start recording. For more details on the National Impact Challenge, go to http://agewell-nce.ca/impact. The challenge opens on May 15, 2018, at 12 am ET and closes on June 30, 2018, at 11:59 pm ET.

Sponsors of the competition are Bereskin & Parr, Revera, Sun Life Financial and TELUS Ventures.