Building a portable brain scanner

Dr. Atefeh Zarabadi co-founded AiimSense to help first responders and doctors diagnose strokes more quickly

Photo credit: Sara Jalali for Communitech

Seconds matter when it comes to strokes. 

Fast identification and early treatment of a stroke can mean the difference between a speedy recovery and a lasting brain injury or even death.  

Now, a new company co-founded by Dr. Atefeh Zarabadi (PhD ’15), is set to give health-care professionals a revolutionary tool for detecting strokes and other brain injuries — a portable brain scanner that could even be used ahead of a patient reaching the hospital.  

AiimSense was launched in 2019 and is currently in Velocity, the University’s flagship entrepreneurship program. 

“When the pandemic hit, we started pushing our product development even more because of the link between increased risks of strokes after COVID-19 infection,” Zarabadi said. “It gave the research a whole new relevance.”  

Now a post-doctoral fellow researching neuroscience in the Faculty of Health’s School of Public Health Sciences under the supervision of Dr. John Mielke, Zarabadi says the name of the company is an abbreviation of Artificial Intelligence Imaging Sensors.    

“Along with the rapid diagnosis of strokes, we see application for the portable scanner in other brain diseases like tumours and traumatic brain injuries,” she said. “Our vision is to make it so brain scans can be accessible and practical as part of any brain health screening.” 

Zarabadi’s co-founder in the company, Mohammad Chavoshi (MEng ’16), is a trained senior electrical and computer engineer and has deep experience in the commercialization of telecommunications products. The AiimSense multidisciplinary team has completed the discovery phase and demonstrated the feasibility of the technology through several versions of prototypes of their brain scanner.  

Our vision is to make it so brain scans can be accessible and practical.

Preparing to take it to clinical settings 

“We started out with a benchtop prototype and tested it on a phantom head, and now we are working on a compact version that can be used at the patient’s bedside,” Zarabadi said. The team has completed preclinical trials and is currently in the research ethics stage to eventually bring the technology into clinical settings.  

A benchtop prototype and on a phantom head

It is a journey which has a few more years ahead, but Zarabadi sees a bright future for the new health technology, especially since there are no other similar commercialized products in the field.  

As a health-tech company with ambitious goals, Zarabadi says AiimSense benefited immensely from the support of several organizations in the Waterloo startup ecosystem.  

She says Velocity and the innovation hub at Communitech have consistently provided know-how and resources for the fledgling company, while the Grand River Hospital has been a strong community partner.   

“Communitech’s Fierce Founders program was invaluable,” Zarabadi says. “It is a competitive program open to all female founders across Canada, and it was an amazing experience to meet and learn from other fellow founders. The whole innovation ecosystem connected to the community made it so I could bring this from an idea to reality.”  

The Velocity incubator provided a working space and a machine shop, as well as the 3D printers the team used to build their first prototype.  

“It all prepared me for what to expect as a medical and health-technology founder.”  

As for next steps, Zarabadi is excited by the work AiimSense is doing and the progress they are making on the transition from preclinical to the clinical trial stage.  

“There is more work ahead, but in the end, what motivates me the most is knowing that my work is going to help people to access medical imaging regardless of their socio-economic status.”