A Passion for Harmony

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As entrepreneurs go, Shahram Yousefi is a paradox – a “black sheep,” he says.

Most entrepreneurs seek to strike it rich. First and foremost, the professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Queen’s is looking for solutions to problems. Entrepreneurs are single-minded. Once they have an idea, they clamp on like an angry pit bull, to the exclusion of everything else. He has not one but two seemingly different ideas, both of which he is passionate about. And, in a world where new ideas and products are hailed for their “disruptive” potential, he says that at the root of what he does is “my passion for harmony.”  

Innovation Park is helping him realize it.

Arriving at Queen’s in 2003 (drawn, he says, by the university’s generous policies towards the intellectual property its professors develop and  students who “are strong on the technical but understand the social and business aspects of what they do”), he spent his 2008 sabbatical at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

“It’s a very entrepreneurial school,” he says. “And when I got back I decided I wanted to concentrate more on entrepreneurial projects.”

To that end he has developed a new entrepreneurial stream within electrical and computer engineering programs dubbed ECE innovation or ECEi. Dr. Yousefi praises Kim Woodhouse, Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, Michael Greenspan, his department head, and Greg Bavington, Executive Director of the Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre, for fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Out for a meal with a medical resident friend one evening in 2012 he was shocked when she told him that a young mother and her twins had died because a scheduling mistake meant that a needed specialist was not on duty.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and could not get it out of my head for days,” he says.

Talking to other health care professionals, he learned that medical scheduling was incredibly complicated, but usually done with very simple, and inappropriate, tools like spreadsheets and emails.

“And communications between the scheduler and the team were very spotty and extremely rudimentary,” Dr. Yousefi says.

A chief resident of cardiology might spend an entire weekend trying to schedule his or her first-, second- and third-year residents. Add in trying to juggle sick days and holidays and other variables, and there were many possibilities for errors.

“Because I come from an algorithm background, I knew that these were the hardest problems to deal with in computer science. Difficult but not impossible,” Dr. Yousefi says. “Here was a great chance to create a system that would harmonize doctors’ and other healthcare professionals’ work schedules.”

He started working on it in 2013, and in 2014 he and his co-founder, Dr. Mohsen Omrani, a medical doctor and neuroscientist, incorporated Canarmony (as in Canadian Harmony – there’s that idea again).

Yousefi’s solution is a cloud-based scheduling tool called MESH (which combines the initials of the four developers’ first names and says succinctly what the tool does).

“It meshes staff schedules seamlessly,  at the push of a button,” he says. “You identify whom you need, say so many E.R. nurses and so many residents and with what skills.”

MESH can even incorporate who wants to work with whom and what shifts they prefer.

“When the schedule is done, it gets pushed along to everyone in the pool,” he says.

They can access it through iOS and Android mobile apps on their phones, tablets, or via any web browser on any computer. If anything changes, because of sickness or an accident, everybody gets informed in real time.

“The other thing MESH does is allow people to swap shifts really easily,” Dr. Yousefi says. “Life does not happen on schedule. Just send out a swap request on your phone and someone can take your shift.”

A self-described perfectionist, Yousefi and partners have taken their time developing MESH. Today the company is trialing the app with medical users, including Kingston General Hospital and Hotel Dieu, and plans to launch a new version of the app featuring an “improved Canarmonizer” (as he terms the algorithm) and a “more user-friendly and attractive version of the interface.” Monetization comes next.

“What got us where we are has been the move to Queen’s Innovation Park,” says Dr. Yousefi. “We’ve received lots of help. There are so many examples. We’ve made connections through IRAP and OCE, we’ve had so many networking and learning opportunities in the last six months.

“Not only has it been good for the company as a whole, but our people have benefited individually.”

With a mission-focused startup like Canarmony, “it is extra important to make sure the team is highly motivated.” Thanks to Canarmony’s involvement in GrindSpaceXL (Innovation Park’s acceleration program for startups that offers them work space and expert advice), “they understood a lot better what we were doing and why. We also worked out where we were not doing things optimally. The amazing team at the Innovation Park harmonized Canarmony even further.”

MESH would be enough to keep most entrepreneurs busy. Not Dr. Yousefi.

“I teach my students you want to be the sharpest knife – you do one thing and you do it the best. So I am seemingly violating that by launching a second product” called OPTT (for Online Psychotherapy Tool). Many people seek psychotherapy help, but for various reasons – geographic isolation,  personal schedules, cultural or language barriers or  stigma – cannot get it. OPTT lets them access help over the web, connecting them with mental health professionals, and offering tests, cognitive behaviour therapies and exercises, completely confidentially.

“OPTT creates a clinic-in-the-cloud delivering the latest clinically proven methods of therapy through our proprietary modules,” he says. Still in its early stages, “We want to get hospitals and governments involved. It’s a challenging feat, but I am not here to do something easy.”

Currently on sabbatical, as well as researching fifth-generation wireless telecommunication systems (5G) at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he is working with his PhD students at Queen’s on mass cloud-based data storage and transmission technologies for high-rate applications such as video. They have one recent U.S. patent filed with one more under review by PARTEQ Innovations (Queen’s commercialization arm) also located at Innovation Park. Dr. Yousefi is also busy “growing a Canarmony subsidiary in the Bay Area, to benefit from, the rich high-tech ecosystem around San Francisco.”

Dean Woodhouse has also appointed Yousefi faculty liaison to C100, a non-profit association of Canadian business leaders based in the San Francisco Bay Area dedicated to helping Canadian high-tech start-ups and our  next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators.

“One thing I hear again and again from entrepreneurs and investors is that Canada is the place to be. Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston. They are it. Down here (in the Bay Area), people are not going to offer you the kind of support we have received at Innovation Park, and are still receiving,” Dr. Yousefi says. “So kudos to Janice and the teams at Innovation Park. Deciding to move there has been the single most important decision we have made since Canarmony’s inception."