Janelle Resch changed career plans and launched a biotech company with her husband Eric Ocelewski after he was diagnosed with cancer.
How did Janelle Resch (BMath ’10, MMath ’13, PhD ’19) move from a doctoral thesis on the mathematics of sound waves to becoming a co-founder of a biotech firm at the beginning of a pandemic?
Her story is about the celebrated University of Waterloo innovation ecosystem, but it is also about her education: “Mathematics helps you describe the world around you. Having that logical foundation to look at something from first principles, derive a model, and then test that model computationally, is really important for any field.”
It is also about her husband and co-founder Eric Ocelewski, his cancer diagnosis, and their decision to use their talents to “make a dent in the universe on the early-detection, diagnostics problem.”
Ocelewski, co-founder of their pathogen detection company Π∩ϟ (Pi and Power) now at the Velocity incubator, was diagnosed with invasive squamous
cell carcinoma on his tongue and underwent intensive surgery and experimental chemotherapy. His father had passed away from a similar cancer, however, advances in genetic screening allowed the couple to predict Eric’s cancer years before it emerged.
Resch points out: “Eric’s surgery and treatment could have been much more simplified if we had caught it earlier.”
The innovation ecosystem at Waterloo has been fundamental to the growth of Π∩ϟ, but Resch says it is critical to recognize the power of the many people who have stepped up to support and encourage her along the way.
The University of Waterloo is just buildings, but the people inside them make the difference.
“The University of Waterloo is just buildings, but the people inside them make the difference,” Resch says. “There were people who were really supportive and positive who helped us make this happen.”
Among the people at Waterloo who were important to her company, Resch cites Michael Barnett-Cowan, a kinesiology professor who encouraged them to get into the Velocity program; Jeff Aramini, an epidemiologist and entrepreneur who served as a business advisor when the company got into Velocity; Parisa Hamilton (MASc ’09, PhD ’14), the Velocity space lab manager who helped Resch become more comfortable with lab equipment thereby making the transition from acoustics to biotech smoother, and the late Safieddin Safavi-Naeini, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering who died last year but was the director of the Centre for Intelligent Antenna and Radio Systems that collaborated with the company as it sought to investigate empirical data.
From augmented reality to early detection of pathogens.
Resch and Ocelewski were initially not even thinking about going into the biotechnology space. They were intent on launching a company that would create virtual and augmented reality environments for research, education, remote testing and training.
But after Ocelewski was diagnosed with cancer, they wanted to find ways for cancer and other pathogens to be detected earlier to prevent suffering, save lives and preserve quality of life for patients and their families.
The company got its first $100,000 investment from a Velocity Fund Pitch Competition held during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Waterloo incubator had extended its intake to additional new companies to give priority to new technology ideas that could help with Canada’s effort to combat COVID-19. Among the new companies accepted into the program was Π∩ϟ.
Resch says any biotech company startup needs the right facilities and lab equipment and the Velocity facilities provided that environment. “We could not have done that at home, as it wouldn’t be appropriate to do a biotech startup focused on viral pathogen identification in your garage,” she says.
A sensor and algorithms for early detection
The company has since designed and fabricated its own sensor and created algorithms for the detection and identification of pathogens. It is now at a stage of testing its technology in the agricultural sector before extending the technology for bacteria and viruses in human health.
Resch says her applied mathematics PhD from Waterloo was certainly foundational for her company which brands itself with the mathematical symbols Π (pi), ∩ (and), ϟ (power).
“Waterloo stands amongst the giants when it comes to mathematical training at the undergraduate and graduate level,” Resch says. “We compete successfully with places like Harvard, Princeton, Cambridge, Oxford, MIT and Caltech.”
When Resch got into mathematics at Waterloo, her interest was initially in music. Her PhD thesis dealt with non-linear acoustics, its signal analysis and the production and propagation of sound waves in musical instruments. She is now an adjunct professor in the Applied Mathematics Department at the University of Waterloo.
But Resch says that mathematics is applicable everywhere and everything, from music to medicine. “Indeed, Mathematics helps you describe the world around you.”