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Iranian-born engineer finds success in Toronto with medical startup

“It’s Canada’s fault that I started this company — Canada made me a businessman,” says Dr. Hamid Tizhoosh, founder and CEO of Toronto medical startup Segasist. “My colleagues and friends — even my family back home in Iran—they don’t believe it. I still cannot believe it. It’s a Canadian metamorphosis. By nature I’m an academic guy, but now I’m running a business. They say: ‘What happened to you?'”
 
What has happened, most recently, is success. After three years building Segasist, developing technology that Tizhoosh hopes will revolutionize oncology, the company recently received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug administration that will allow it to roll out an introductory version of its product to the American medical market.
 
In cancer treatment, each oncologist has his or her own style of contouring. Often several doctors will need to spend hours separately performing the process to reach consensus on the outline of a tumour, which is critical to determining treatment. Segasist’s automated contouring tool can learn from doctors, taking their different styles and applying them to new medical images. These more refined images can improve diagnosis, treatment planning and monitoring. The software can also provide “consensus contours,” showing how multiple doctors in a hospital would contour the image. Eventually, the tool could provide a cloud-based consensus of all 5,000 or so oncologists in North America.
 
FDA approval represents a breakthrough moment for the young company, transforming Tizhoosh from an academic into a most unlikely CEO.
 
Tizhoosh was born in Iran. After the Cultural Revolution in the early 1980s shuttered universities there, he was forced to go elsewhere to continue his studies. He ended up in Germany where it took the teenager three or four more years to get accepted by a university. He stayed in Germany for 18 years, earning a PhD in electrical and computer engineering and publishing a textbook. It was while he was living in Aachen, Germany, that he lost a grandfather to lung cancer. The trauma of the experience prompted him to quit his job as an engineer. Seeking to help create better cancer treatments, he decided to do a PhD in medical imaging.
 
“It was so terrible, seeing him struggle with cancer. I wanted to help fight cancer, from then on,” says Tizhoosh.
 
Considering Tizhoosh’s focus on his family, moving his wife and young children (a boy and a girl, now 23 and 25 years old) felt like a risky endeavour. But he and his wife also shared a desire to see more of the world.
 
“My wife and I did more than a year of investigations on where to move…. We decided on Canada, because it was the best place we found for raising a family,” he says. “It’s a young immigration country, and we could be accepted right away while we were learning English.”
 
In 2000, they landed in Waterloo, where Tizhoosh still works as a professor at the University of Waterloo. There, he set up a research group to develop his oncology imaging technology. He had no inclination to start a business of his own, figuring his research might instead find applications in other people’s companies. But the entrepreneurial culture he found himself immersed in changed his mind.
 
“Everybody started saying, ‘You have to commercialize this,'” he says. “Everyone was pushing, offering help. So this has become my life target and goal.”
 
While government and institutional support provided a path forward, Tizhoosh was obliged to pick his business skills up along the way. “At first we had no money to hire anyone, so I was running all aspects of the business. I was going to hire a CEO eventually, but then eventually I became the best person for the job,” he says.
 
His evolution as an entrepreneur was coached along by mentors through the business and innovation incubator MaRS. His tenancy there helped him to confirm and refine his products, and to develop his skills as an entrepreneur through introductions to venture capitalists and other business leaders. Its location located near Toronto’s major hospitals at College and University has been crucial.
 
“I wanted to open an office in Waterloo,” he says. “That would have been much easier for me, since I am still teaching there. But there is such a concentration of world-class hospitals and doctors in downtown Toronto that we decided that’s where we had to be. Experience has shown that was the right decision.”
 
Sonia Sanhuza, advisor and practice lead for the life sciences and health care division at MaRS, recalls that Segasist was one of the earliest clients of the incubator when it launched five years ago.
 
“Working with Hamid, I have seen how a dream can be shaped,” says Sanhuza. “He’s a visionary.” She says his oncology tool offers a “unique value proposition” to oncology units in hospitals, which bodes well for its chances of success.
 
Since launching in 2008, Segasist has drawn about $1.3 million in investment, including about $400,000 in grants from governments. “We tapped into research grants — basically everything you can get, we’ve received,” Tizhoosh says.
 
Lots of support, it seems, creates more work rather than less. Tizhoosh tells of many occasions where he’s worked all night at the Segasist office in Toronto, then driven to Waterloo to teach in the morning without sleeping.
 
“Basically the only reason I go home is that I love my wife,” he jokes.
 
That hectic pace is obvious — he scheduled phone interviews for this story on two occasions after 10:30pm on weeknights. Not that he’s complaining. “When I came to Canada, I had in mind that I’d take it easy, and write some books, do some research. But life takes really strange ways with you…. Some part of me got activated somehow. But I am more than happy. I love it.”