Dr. Alex Mihailidis

Teamwork between multiple sectors is the lifeblood of technological innovation in Canada – especially as we strive to improve the lives of older Canadians. So why is the Networks of Centres of Excellence initiative, which provides such essential collaboration and support, being phased out?

A personalized activity technology proved to be a game-changer for many long-term care residents with dementia. The wall-mounted system, developed by researchers at the University of Toronto and a Canadian company called Ambient Activity Technologies, improves quality of life and decreases agitation and anxiety among residents with dementia. Another innovation that AGE-WELL, as part of the federally funded Networks of Centres of Excellence, has proudly supported is Steadi-One, a wrist-joint stabilizer designed to help millions of people living with hand tremors, which can make it difficult to write, drink from a cup without spilling, or use a keyboard. That much-needed innovation, now in the final stages of testing, was developed in a prototyping lab at the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre and will be brought to market by Steadiwear Inc., an Ontario-based medical technology manufacturer.

The common – and crucial – success factor in both of these AGE-WELL-supported innovations? Call it the network approach. It’s a commitment to working together, to embracing a shared purpose, that has enabled AGE-WELL, as Canada’s Technology and Aging Network, to bring together more than 200 researchers and over 250 industry, government, and non-profit partners from multiple sectors to work collaboratively to benefit older adults and caregivers through new technologies and services. Since 2015, we have supported more than 70 project teams that are producing 80 life-improving products. More than 500 trainees and 4,500 older adults and caregivers are involved. It’s collaboration at its very best – and it works.

Our ability to continue improving the lives of Canadians is now in peril. In December, the federal government announced the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program will bephased out over the next few years. The 30-year-old network program is being replaced by the New Frontiers in Research Fund, which seems unlikely to nurture the same cohesiveness, the same multi-sector approach that launched a new era of innovation in Canada three decades ago. For AGE-WELL, it means we can apply only for three years of renewal funding from the NCE program – and nothing beyond.

Without alternative funding, I fear we’ll regress to that desperate, fragmented time when innovators worked in silos with no integration between academia and industry.

Without alternative funding, I fear we’ll regress to that desperate, fragmented time when innovators worked in silos with no integration between academia and industry. Trust me, no one wants to relive those scenarios where three or four researchers – sometimes from the same institution – approached the same company for support. For four years, AGE-WELL has provided the backbone needed to bring the technology and aging fields together and provide common direction for everyone, attracting new industry players.

Without long-term support for AGE-WELL, innovation in the technology and aging space will slow down in Canada.

NCEs have helped innovators bring their products to market – into the Canadian homes where they’re needed. Without long-term support for AGE-WELL, innovation in the technology and aging space will slow down in Canada. And at a time when our aging population is growing exponentially, a slowdown in support for older Canadians is the last thing we need.

 

Dr. Alex Mihailidis is scientific co-director at AGE-WELL, a federally funded Network of Centres of Excellence that is harnessing the power of new technologies to benefit older adults and caregivers. The pan-Canadian network brings together researchers, industry, non-profits, government, care providers and end-users to develop solutions for healthy aging. He is also a professor at the University of Toronto and holder of the Barbara G. Stymiest Chair in Rehabilitation Technology Research at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute ‒ University Health Network. 

READ: AGE-WELL Identifies 8 Key Challenge Areas Shaping the Future of Aging