Over a decade ago, Armen Bakirtzian’s father, an orthopaedic surgeon, shared some candid insight with his son, who was sitting in on a surgery. Many orthopaedic surgeons do surgery by eye. “And because of that we are prone to making mistakes,” Bakirtzian’s father told him.
Looking back, it was a definitive moment for the mechatronics engineering undergrad, a pivotal confession that shaped Bakirtzian’s career. It’d steer him and his University of Waterloo classmates – Andre Hladio and Richard Fanson – to develop a navigation tool for surgeons as their fourth-year design project; a project that would evolve into Intellijoint Surgical and their flagship product the Intellijoint HIP.
“Eight years later we've done over 5,000 live surgeries under full regulatory clearance in Canada and in the US and Australia, we’ve released two generations of our product and have many orthopaedic surgeons doing hundreds of hip replacements each year with it,” he says. “It's been a great story.”
Their success has also made a statement about building a medical technology startup in Kitchener-Waterloo. But it wasn't always an option at the forefront of budding entrepreneurial minds.
“When we graduated in 2008, Waterloo wasn't what it is now in terms of entrepreneurship… I don't think we heard entrepreneur or entrepreneurship once in undergrad,” says Bakirtzian, talking about his home, which is now synonymous with startup acceleration. “We had something we thought was interesting, of course, we were tied to it (but) we didn't know what to do.”
There was no clear path, explains the Intellijoint co-founder. “So, like a lot of confused kids, we did more school.”
They laboured in the background, winning Ontario’s Next Top Young Entrepreneur Pitch Competition in 2010. It was a part of the Ontario Centres of Excellence discovery conference. “We won a small loan of $18,000 from the OCE but most importantly it gave us access to a community of healthcare professionals,” says Bakirtzian.
It opened the doorway to some of the front-running orthopaedic surgeons in Canada including Dr. Allan Gross – “He’s the godfather of orthopaedics in our country,” gushes the Intellijoint co-founder. “In one way or another, he’s trained every orthopaedic surgeon in the country.”
It cemented an unshakeable bond with Mount Sinai hospital in Toronto but Bakirtzian and his co-founders felt the pull back to Waterloo.
“Being students here for five years really allowed us to understand and immerse ourselves in the ecosystem,” he says. “We really had a strong desire to come back here… and honestly, the cost was another factor.”
And they’re glad they did.
“We do have strong roots into Toronto,” says Bakirtzian. But Kitchener-Waterloo is home. “It has such a unique ecosystem that is genuinely supportive of one another and really embodies the pay-it-forward mentality.”
But the entrepreneur says he’d like to see more Canadian companies stay, grow, and be successful in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.
“I feel it's part of my responsibility as a member of this ecosystem to spread that aspiration,” he says. “You can do it here, you can start a medical device company here, you can have every segment of your team here in Waterloo.”
Photo Credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)