A shoe insole that could save lives

by Linda Sutherland

Breanne Everett was one of the first six Canadians to receive
 the new Governor General’s Innovation Award.

There is a valuable new tool for the estimated 19.5 million people in North America who develop peripheral neuropathy as a result of their diabetes.

This serious complication, caused by chronically high blood sugar levels, damages nerves that carry messages between the brain and the feet. For those afflicted, the consequences can be catastrophic: ulcers, infections, amputation, and even death.

Breanne Everett, BSc’06, a Calgary-based entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Orpyx Medical Technologies, has developed the SurroSense Rx – a specialized shoe insole with sensors that wirelessly alert users when pressure-induced damage is occurring, so that they can move their feet to improve blood flow.

This unique wearable technology recently earned Everett one of six inaugural Governor General’s Innovation Awards. The new national prizes celebrate innovative, entrepreneurial risk-takers, whose novel ideas and products are having a meaningful impact on Canadians’ quality of life. The selection committee for the prize included former McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum, Cirque du Soleil president Daniel Lamarre and Facebook chief privacy officer Erin Egan.

“This new award gives a terrific boost to Canada’s innovation ecosystem, and is a reminder of what can be achieved when we are encouraged to take risks,” says Everett.

Born and raised in Bragg Creek, Alberta, Everett was encouraged by her parents to pursue her creative and entrepreneurial impulses. At the age of eight, she started selling her handmade jewelry, and by the age of 10, her creations were appearing on the CBC television show North of 60 and in several films.

By secondary school, Everett’s interests had shifted towards science, and she set her sights on becoming a doctor. Thanks to a prestigious Loran scholarship, she was able to choose where she wanted to study; and her choice was McGill. “I knew that McGill has a highly respected biochemistry program and I was eager to experience living in Montreal,” she recalls.

After earning her undergraduate degree in 2006, Everett returned to Alberta to attend medical school at the University of Calgary. While doing her medical residency in plastic and reconstructive surgery, she was alarmed by how many of her diabetic patients were suffering from severe complications caused by peripheral neuropathy.

Everett came up with a remarkably simple idea: a sensor-based shoe insole that takes pressure readings and sends signals to an electronic watch to remind the patient to shift position. Encouraged to bring this idea to life, she decided to take a hiatus from her residency and in 2010 she co-founded Orpyx Medical Technologies. “We chose the name Orpyx – an anagram of ‘proxy’ – to convey the idea that our company develops products that are a replacement for a deficiency,” she explains.

In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Everett explained that developing the tech for her device was fairly straightforward -- except for one particularly tricky complication. "The shoe is a very hostile environment. It is sweaty and is constantly being punished with mechanical forces.”

Recognizing that she needed to build her business knowledge to successfully run Orpyx, Everett enrolled in U of C’s two-year executive MBA program, after which she went on to complete her medical residency.

Over the past six years, Orpyx has grown to employ 12 staff. Since introducing the Surrosense Rx, the company has been developing a device that will send foot pressure signals to a pad strapped to a person’s back, giving them real-time tactile feeling. “This product functions on the basis of the brain’s ability to rewire itself – or neuroplasticity,” says Everett. “Users will actually come to feel their feet again.”

Everett believes there should be more emphasis on innovation in the medical profession. Speaking at a TedX event in 2012, she said, “We have come a long way in embracing the scientific method in medicine; but that doesn’t mean we have to leave creativity by the wayside, or deny ourselves the mechanisms of change that have entered other areas of our lives.”

Today, the young entrepreneur is optimistic that change is coming: “Since we are the first generation of medical practitioners who grew up with information technology, we are the ones who must create an environment that encourages innovation.”

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