Why this SFU alumni couple is tackling Parkinson’s Disease

April 06, 2021
Susan Richards de Wit, left, with Bob de Wit and their daughter Amadea on vacation in Ireland in the summer of 2019.

Vancouver tech entrepreneur Bob de Wit has enjoyed a successful career in tech transfer, commercialization and innovation, but he has a new focus now.

Diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s seven years ago, de Wit and his wife Susan Richards de Wit, both SFU alumni, have since regrouped and refocused to approach the disease with the same emphasis on innovation and research that has been the hallmark of their professional careers. The couple will be talking on Apr. 9th at an SFU panel about their experiences ahead of World Parkinson’s Day and hope you will join them.

“For a lot of people, there is a sense of dread about being diagnosed with Parkinson’s,” says de Wit, who has extensive SFU ties, including an SFU business degree and a master’s degree in economics.

“In my case, I didn’t have that dread, because I was completely ignorant of what was involved.”

An avid runner, de Wit was out for his usual forest run when he first noticed his leg dragging. What he initially thought was a back injury was diagnosed in 2014 as young-onset Parkinson’s, a brain degenerative condition that affects mood and motor skills.

At the time of his diagnosis, de Wit was CEO of the Greater Vancouver Homebuilders’ Association. He found it difficult to manage the condition, which calls for a strict regimen of exercise and medication, and still do the job the way he wanted to do it.

He retired early, two years ago, at 51, and is using his experience and skills to try to make a difference for people living with Parkinson’s. He’s focusing on mentorship, new drug development, treatment, and research programs.

“Parkinson’s has changed everything for our family. It leaves nothing untouched,” says Richards de Wit, a management consultant. “You go through a process of a lot of difficult things. Redefining purpose is big. What’s important is getting informed, having a care team around you and refusing to be isolated despite the circumstances. Bob’s done a good job using his own interests in mentorship, innovation and research to stay connected to experts and others walking a similar path.”

The pair met at SFU as students and both previously worked at SFU and Tech B.C. (which became SFU’s Surrey campus in the mid-90s). They were involved in creating SFU Venture Connection and their daughter is currently a second-year mechatronics engineering student in the Faculty of Applied Sciences.

On Friday, April 9, 2021, ahead of World Parkinson’s Day, the couple will take part in an SFU panel discussion on the way forward with research, innovation and the impact of Parkinson’s Disease alongside Dr. Alexandra T. Greenhill, co-founder and CEO of Careteam Technologies; Frank Lee, a professor in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences; and Debashis Chanda, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. Sobhana Jaya-Madhavan, associate vice president of SFU External Relations, will moderate the discussion.

As her husband’s care partner, Richards de Wit has redefined her purpose through innovation and technology.

Susan reached out and connected with a nano-physicist in Florida and engineers in a Silicon Valley to start-up a venture called dopomo that is working on a device (a dopameter) that measures blood dopamine levels, similar to the way a glucometer measures blood sugar. Dopamine sends messages between nerve cells and is related to various chronic conditions, including Parkinson’s. She hopes the device will make dopamine levels easier to measure and help doctors personalize medication for patients.

As a care partner, Richards de Wit vows to offer support to other families going through a sudden diagnosis of young-onset Parkinson’s because she noticed a lack of support and a lack of a voice for care partners of Parkinson’s patients. Unable to find another care partner to discuss life with Parkinson’s from a care partner perspective – she plans to offer her support to those who may be more recently diagnosed.

“A young-onset Parkinson’s diagnosis is different than addressing Parkinson’s in an elder. It creates a very complicated, all-consuming series of challenges. For example, we are parents, we are building our careers, we love to travel and enjoy the outdoors. Parkinson’s tries to slow all of that down – so it’s a process to adopt a new attitude and find new ways to do what you love in a new way,” says Richards de Wit.

“For World Parkinson’s Day, there is a huge need for a voice around being a care partner. President Biden has put millions of dollars around addressing the caregiver crisis in the U.S.  Canada is experiencing very similar things with women carrying the bulk of caregiving while trying to work, raise their children and give back in the community.  The answer is not just support groups, the technologies are there – it’s care coordination, it’s new ways of doing things.  One thing for sure, there needs to be more of a voice for care partners and more funding wrapped around technologies that can help alleviate the bulk of the work.  Care coordination is one of them.”