Digital health is often equated with the health tracking bands people sport on their wrists.

Counting steps is one thing, but protecting people from life-threatening allergies is another – and a Waterloo Region company’s product is more than just another fashionable accessory.

The company, Aterica, unveiled Veta at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in early January.

Veta is a “smart case” that houses the EpiPen, an epinephrine injection device severe allergy sufferers carry in the event of a severe reaction, known as anaphylaxis.

Veta is equipped with sensors that can alert caregivers, via a mobile app, when an EpiPen has been pulled out to be used, or alert a user when they have left their EpiPen behind. It also monitors temperature to prevent spoilage of epinephrine.

This helps ensure timely and effective treatment of anaphylactic shock, which can develop quickly and be fatal without an immediate dose of epinephrine followed by hospital treatment.

Veta garnered much attention during CES and is currently accepting pre-orders, with a first shipment expected this fall.

Getting to this point has been long process for Aterica CEO Alex Leyn and his team.

The self-professed “startup guy” served as Director of Hardware at another local startup – PixStream – from 1997 until the company’s acquisition by Cisco Systems in December 2000.

After Cisco shut down the PixStream division months later, Leyn co-founded VideoLocus with some Pixstream teammates, which ultimately led to the creation, in 2008, of Avvasi, a Waterloo company whose technology enables network operators to track and improve video performance on their customers’ mobile devices.

As an Avvasi co-founder, Leyn served as the company’s COO and VP of Hardware Engineering.

“Personally, I have always been interested in [digital health] for quite a long time and to some degree there’s always a question, ‘When is the right time to get into this?’ ” he said.

When Leyn started getting pangs of inspiration around a Veta-like solution in 2004, it wasn’t the right time to act on them, for several reasons. For one thing, knowledge around allergens – including Ara h1, a peanut protein linked to severe reactions – was limited.

The stars didn’t align until the last couple of years.

Western medicine, which is relatively young at 100 years old, has only just reached the stage “where we know enough to start to make things into a process, as opposed to everything requiring the art of a clinician,” Leyn said.

“Even five to seven years ago, the ubiquity of connectivity of smartphones and just Internet connectivity in general was not at this mature level.”.

With medicine, biochemistry and technology converging to form the perfect environment for putting digital health solutions into people’s hands, Leyn just needed a catalyst.

He put together a team for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition, focused on innovation around self-diagnosis, in 2012.

“Under the Tricorder umbrella, we met at Communitech a lot on weekends and evenings,” he said, adding that he met co-founder Mike Fisher at a Communitech health and life sciences peer-to-peer session.

Aterica was incorporated in mid-2012.

“We got really focused on this right from the start of 2013,” Leyn said, adding that it was one of his original teammates who summarized the basic idea that they were going to tackle.

By this time, Leyn had left Avvasi in an official capacity, but moved only as far as the kitchen to work on Aterica.

“We took a couple of walls and curtained off a little part of the cafeteria,” he said.

He was then heads-down working in 2013, tasked with bringing multiple disciplines to the table.

“An engineer and a doctor think differently, but it almost doesn’t matter, because the results of actually getting them together can have a huge impact,” he said.

Those results include Veta, which has the potential to help seven to eight million people dealing with anaphylaxis in developed countries, and that number is growing.

“Our market is growing exponentially,” he said. “If you follow the pattern of the last 10 years, 2016 will have an even larger market than 2015.”

Leyn attributed part of this growth to recognition of food allergies, but more so to the incidence of anaphylaxis.

“Allergies in general tend to be a developed-country disease,” he said.

The reasons for this are complex, but two factors stand out. One is the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that our obsession with cleanliness is starving our immune systems of work to do, so they look for different antigens to attack, resulting in allergies.

The other is the complexity of foods in Western countries.

“A typical sauce contains about 150 ingredients from all over the world,” Leyn said.

This introduces unfamiliar ingredients to our systems, which then attack them as antigens.

Although Veta was designed to help people deal with anaphylaxis, the vision driving Aterica is much greater – to turn Western medicine on its head.

Currently, we seek medical attention when we experience symptoms, which is often too late. Aterica hopes to bring health management to a level where we can detect and treat disease before symptoms develop.

With a goal of that magnitude, there are “many lifetimes of product ideas” to keep Leyn in startup mode – and in Waterloo Region.

“Waterloo is the best place in Canada to do a startup,” he said, adding that the region is surrounded by life-sciences powerhouses.

Leyn also gives a nod to Communitech, where he spent the first year of Aterica sitting in Area 151, the networking space at the Hub.

“It’s an ecosystem for generating companies and generating connections, as opposed to a single process,” he said. “It’s this unpretentious activity that I think makes Communitech unique.”

Photo: Mike Fisher, VP of  Marketing and Business Development, and Alex Leyn, President and CEO. 

About The Author

Trish Crompton
Digital Journalist/Social Media Manager

Trish Crompton brings her passion for technology and digital media expertise to Communitech's External Relations team. Trish was born in Sydney, Australia and has called Waterloo Region home since 2008. She is a marketing graduate of Conestoga College.