Bio.Diaspora – Predicting the Next Pandemic (Part 1)

flightpathsbiodA few days from now on Halloween – possibly as you are handing out candy to young trick-or-treaters – the number of people on earth will surpass seven billion. And as the world’s population rises, our global village becomes smaller and smaller. Today, more than two billion travelers board commercial flights every year, making the world both highly interconnected and highly interdependent. And this is not just referring to the global interdependence of financial markets, but rather, global interdependence around the threat of dangerous infectious diseases.

The arrival of West Nile virus into North America in 1999, the worldwide outbreak of SARS in 2003, and the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009 have each demonstrated the very serious health, security, and economic repercussions of emerging infectious diseases. Consequently, anticipating, preparing for, and safely riding the wave of major infectious disease outbreaks is a serious business. Bio.Diaspora, a scientifically validated and operational web-based technology based at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, has been created to address the growing global threat of infectious diseases. As a result, public health, biodefense, and industry groups worldwide who are looking for anticipatory analytics and real-time global epidemic intelligence to protect their interests are clamoring for access to Bio.Diaspora.

However, an important challenge remains: how do the founders of Bio.Diaspora continue to deliver its social value in the world but also generate the financial returns needed to sustain and expand its global impact? As with so many academic innovations that attempt to transition into a commercial sphere to achieve financial sustainability, Bio.Diaspora has struggled to cross “the chasm.”  Now, with the help of MaRS Innovation, a business model has been developed that could become a blueprint for success for other academic innovations with a social purpose and commercial potential. It might be instructive to examine the model’s social and commercial aspects.

Bio.Diaspora is a web-based GIS technology (see video below) that enables users to efficiently integrate a wide array of high quality, complementary data about emerging infectious disease threats in the world, predict their potential for and pathways of international spread, assess their health and economic consequences, all while producing rigorous real-time analytics to identify the most effective and efficient strategies to attenuate the impact of an outbreak. At the core of the technology is an unprecedented ability to understand worldwide patterns of commercial air traffic in real-time. Understanding the role of global air traffic in the spread of infectious diseases enabled Bio.Diaspora to accurately predict how H1N1 spread worldwide during the 2009 pandemic. This important validation has since enabled the Bio.Diaspora team to focus greater attention on developing tools to anticipate and consequently plan for infectious disease outbreaks before they even occur (e.g. planning for infectious disease threats during mass gatherings like the Olympic Games).

I lead the Bio.Diaspora team and was first inspired to tackle the spread of infectious diseases during the 2003 SARS pandemic, when I witnessed first-hand how SARS brought the city of Toronto to its knees, leaving in its path 44 deaths and two billion dollars in economic damages. Yet SARS was not even a true pandemic in that it did not spread to all countries in the world (i.e. it was an international outbreak). The recent movie Contagion depicts what might happen if a severe pandemic like the 1918 Spanish Flu were to emerge in today’s world.

Coming from an academic background, Bio.Diaspora has been supported with traditional grants and research contracts from government agencies. However, as it has evolved from a concept into an operational technology, it has garnered growing attention from organizations in public health, biodefense, as well as corporations whose businesses are impacted by or intertwined with infectious diseases. To meet these growing demands, Bio.Diaspora must scale up its technology; however, this is not something that traditional scientific research grants have a mandate to support. In order to effectively provide its services to help make the world a safer, more secure, and more prosperous place, Bio.Diaspora needs to evolve from a purely research oriented initiative into a business that can deliver worldwide access to its disruptive technology – but how?

Part II of this blog post will explain how MaRS Innovation is taking Bio.Diaspora to the market. Below, anticipating global infectious disease threats during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.


Update: See Part II of this post.

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