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Keeping up with the pathogens: Dr. Kamran Khan launches social benefit corporation BlueDot to track global spread of infectious diseases, receives venture capital funding from Horizons Ventures

Toronto, December 2, 2014

By Leslie Shepherd

“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
-- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Earth, as seen from Voyager 1 in 1977
This picture of the Earth was recorded on Sept. 18, 1977, by NASA's Voyager 1 when it was 11.66 million km from Earth. (Image by NASA)

The goal of most researchers is to distribute knowledge by publishing their work in a respected scientific journal, a process that can takes months if not years.

But viruses and infectious diseases such as SARS or Ebola won’t wait that long before spreading, threatening not just people’s health but also international security and economic prosperity.

Dr. Kamran Khan, an infectious disease physician and scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said researchers have to come up with new ways to make sure they’re keeping up with the pathogens.

To meet the timely demands of government decision-makers around the world, Dr. Khan today announced he has formed a new for-profit social enterprise, BlueDot, which uses big data analysis to track and predict the global spread of infectious diseases.

The name BlueDot is a reference to a photograph of Earth the Voyager 1 space probe captured in 1990 from about 6.4 billion kilometres away. The picture, which shows Earth as a small dot in the vast expanse of space, was taken at the request of astronomer Carl Sagan.

“As a clinician on the front lines in New York City, where West Nile virus first appeared in North America, and then in Toronto when SARS crippled the city, it was clear to me that the world would be experiencing more of these high-impact outbreaks,” Dr. Khan said. “But as a scientist, the ability to produce and distribute valuable information to decision-makers was limited by the slow process of publishing in academic journals. By fusing the academic mindset of discovery with ‘disruptive technology’ in big data analysis and visualization, I knew we would have a far greater impact in responding to rapidly evolving outbreaks in real time.”

One of the world's most influential tech investors agrees. BlueDot recently received Series A venture capital funding from Horizons Ventures, the private investment arm of Asian businessman Li Ka-shing. Based in Hong Kong, Horizons Ventures is a leading investor in some of the world’s most innovative companies and “disruptive technologies” including Facebook, Waze, Skype, Spotify, Siri and Hampton Creek.

"We are excited about our partnership with Horizons because of their track record in helping companies amplify the impact of innovative technology,” said Albert Tseng, chief operating officer of BlueDot. “Another fundamental backbone of the partnership is that Horizons shares our vision of using business to address important social challenges in the world; in our case, using technology to predict and mitigate against the spread of dangerous infectious diseases.”

MaRS Innovation had previously provided $400,000 in seed funding and worked with BlueDot and St. Michael’s to incorporate the company and develop its initial go-to-market plan. Ontario Centres of Excellence provided $140,000 in commercialization grants that helped BlueDot get off the ground.

BlueDot recently entered into a five-year cooperative agreement to work with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. It also has received funding from Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada to support the World Health Organization’s Ebola response in West Africa and to build capacity among the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to prepare for tomorrow’s inevitable infectious disease threats.

BlueDot is the commercial arm of Dr. Khan’s academic research program called BioDiaspora, which was developed at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s. BioDiaspora models how infectious diseases can spread and impact populations globally by analyzing big data such as the annual movements of more than 3 billion travelers on commercial flights; human, animal and insect population data; climate data from satellites; and news reports of disease outbreaks. The program was inspired by the Toronto’s SARS crisis in 2003 and its capabilities scientifically validated in prestigious academic journals such as the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine.

The BioDiaspora platform has been used by numerous international agencies, including the CDC, the WHO , the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the Public Health Agency of Canada to evaluate emerging infectious disease threats, including those during global mass gatherings such as the Olympics and the hajj.

BlueDot was one of the first 100 companies in Canada to incorporate as a “social benefit corporation,” a new type of corporation that uses the power of business to confront social and environmental problems. “B (for benefit) Corps” have to meet rigorous standards around purpose, transparency and accountability.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

Media contacts

For more information, or to arrange an interview with Dr. Khan, please contact:

Leslie Shepherd
Manager, Media Strategy
416-864-6094
shepherdl@smh.ca