For most of academia, the pandemic has been a trial by fire, as researchers grappled with the question of how to do science without ready access to labs. Last spring, Katie McKearney was no exception.
A master’s candidate and psychology researcher-in-training at Saint Mary’s University, she was fulfilling the research requirements of her degree program by working as an electroencephalography technician, using small, metal disks attached to a patient’s head to measure electrical activity in their brain.
But when the arrival of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia brought with it sweeping lockdowns and shuttered universities, that work ground to a halt and McKearney’s progress towards her master’s degree stalled.
Her academic salvation came in the form of a new job offer from the same researcher in whose lab she was already working: Dr. Gail Eskes, who is developing a software tool for measuring patients’ cognitive health, and with whom McKearney would later complete Dalhousie University’s Lab2Market program. Funded by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and Mitacs, Lab2Market is part of the university’s Dal Innovates’ suite of entrepreneurship programs. It teaches researchers how to commercialize their work.
Eskes is developing a piece of software called the DalCAB, or Dalhousie Computerized Assessment Battery. The DalCAB is a series of tasks that test a patient’s memory and focus, generating an “attention report card” that can be used for research or to help make plans for patient care. Unlike electroencephalography, the work can be carried out remotely because the system is completely digital, requiring only a computer.
“I used to be a very hands-on EEG technician,” said McKearney in an interview. “But of course, everything went remote and COVID-19 cancelled our face-to-face participation.
“And one of the features we've been working on for the DalCAB is to have it be a completely remote online cognitive assessment -- so very timely. I jumped on board to help try to develop the online, remote capabilities of our assessment.”
Eskes’s lab at Dalhousie is in the process of gathering normative data from healthy people to use as a baseline for comparison with patients. The lab is also researching how conditions like strokes and Parkinson’s disease affect DalCAB results.
That knowledge will help researchers and doctors track the progress of patients suffering from neurological deterioration, such as possible dementia patients.
“The DalCAB is like an attention report card. It's the kind of tool that you would use to get an assessment of a participant or patient’s functioning,” said McKearney. “So, a lot of the data that it records is reaction time and accuracy on tasks.
“And it will inform either a researcher or a caregiver about how a participant is doing, and then they can compare it to our normative data... or they can also compare it to their own groups, if they have their own data.”
Right now, the DalCAB is used mainly by its creators in Eskes’s lab, but a rash of academics at other institutions across Canada and the United States have also expressed interest.
Prompted by that interest, McKearney and Eskes looked to Dalhousie’s Lab2Market program for help commercializing their technology.
Starting in November, they spent eight weeks learning about customer discovery and product-market fit, as well as making plans to sell the DalCAB software to physicians, occupational therapists and neuropsychologists who will use it to create better-tailored treatment plans for their patients.
McKearney, who was the DalCAB team’s entrepreneurial lead during Lab2Market, said the program was particularly useful because of its focus on customer discovery. That emphasis caused the team to focus its attention on whether to sell the DalCAB as a single product or in parts -- a question that they are still debating.
“The DalCAB is split up into eight sub-tests,” said McKearney. “But what if our customers want to use one sub-test at a time, or split them up?”
The DalCAB is also not the first time McKearney and Eskes have collaborated. The two previously worked together when McKearney was an undergraduate psychology student at Mount Saint Vincent University.
McKearney -- a native of Nova Scotia -- arrived at MSVU expecting to focus her studies on child psychology, the specialty de rigueur for young psychology student. It was through meeting Eskes that she discovered a passion for the psychology of older adults.
“The way I found out about Gail was I wrote a paper on her work for one of my classes,” said McKearney. “And my supervisor, who was my professor said, ‘Hey, I actually know her. Do you want me to connect you?’”
The result was that McKearney found herself working in Eskes’s lab as an undergraduate, where she was interacting mostly with older adults.
“I met these older folks and I was like, ‘I love them. I want to work with them,’” she said. “I think sometimes when [psychologists] look at older adults, they're like, ‘Hey, you’re already cooked. Whatever.’
“But they still have brains. They still have psychology. They're still important and valuable, and somebody needs to take care of them. I want to be that person.”
McKearney shifted the focus of her studies to concentrate on mature adults, and has been working steadily with that population since.
Her move to work on the DalCAB last summer was a return to form, with the DalCAB’s largest target demographic being adults over 55 facing age-related medical issues, such as strokes.
“The DalCAB is... designed to look like simple games and tasks using traditional playing cards, poker cards, as stimuli,” said McKearney. “Because it's something that we hope will be easily recognizable for older adults, who are usually our main audience for it.”
Now, with the help of a $50,000 grant from Nova Scotia venture capital Crown corporation Innovacorp, Eskes and McKearney are building on the research they conducted in Lab2Market with more customer outreach, as they work on packaging a final, commercialization-ready version of their software.
“We need to do research on this first,” said McKearney. “We’re doing this commercialization research now so that we can develop a product that meets the needs of our customers.”
The Lab2Market Program is a 16-week program to help researchers validate their ideas with the purpose of finding business/commercial value. The program is delivered by Dal Innovates and based on similar programs that have found success in other parts of the world, but with a Canadian twist.