This story is part of the life sciences sector series.
To learn more about export opportunities for companies in this sector, please also read Exporting key to success for Canada’s life science’s sector.
Lawrence Buchan’s route from the comfortable confines of the engineering faculty at the University of British Columbia (UBC) to the horn-honking, traffic-jammed realities of Nairobi was a simple, if surprising, one.
Buchan and some of his fellow engineering graduate students were approached by a group of UBC’s orthopedic surgeons who were looking for some engineering innovation to help bring orthopedic options to developing countries, specifically Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda.
“Our business started as a research collaboration,” said Buchan, aged 26.
The result is what looks like a homespun solution — one an innovative tinkerer might come up with in his or her workshop to solve a simple problem — but it means big things for trauma patients and orthopedic surgeons in Africa and beyond. The engineers came up with a cover that goes over a drill.
“There was a real lack of equipment for surgery,” Buchan said. “The Ugandan surgeons came to us asking if we could develop something that would let doctors use these hardware drills safely. So that’s what we did.”
They build a protective surgical-grade linen casing that fits over the body of an everyday drill and renders it safe for surgeries by keeping any potential pathogens at bay. A surgical theatre would ideally have at least two, and as many as five, of these covers to quickly shift the used ones out to avoid downtime between surgeries. A single medical-grade drill in Canada would cost as much as $30,000. Buchan’s team has created a solution that outfits an entire operating theatre for $2,000.
After developing it, Buchan and his team got some grant funding to commercialize the product and soon started receiving requests from all over the world.
“We realized this had to be something that we scaled, so that’s when we decided to, with support from Grand Challenges Canada [an organization that supports “bold ideas with big impact in global health] and other Canadian government organizations, to create Arbutus Medical, which would be a commercialization engine for product ideas that are suitable for low-resource settings.”
The drill cover, therefore, is the first of what they hope will be “portfolio of products” that will make surgeries safer in low and middle-income countries and emerging markets.
Projects they’re now working on include an oscillating saw and a reamer that will work in similar ways.
“We have started collaborating with UBC and our groups of surgeons in East Africa to develop other types of products for surgery and potentially even other areas of medicine,” Buchan said. “A big problem in global health or global surgery is that most equipment is either very expensive or not very safe or reliable because it breaks down.”
They’ll also expand by looking to other theatres of operation. They’ve realized their devices will have applicability in veterinary surgery, military surgery and disaster relief as well.
“Our core mission is to provide safe surgery for people in need throughout the developing world, but we see these other markets as complimentary revenue streams to grow our business and achieve our purpose and social mission,” Buchan said.
Arbutus Medical is still a startup that has just closed its seed funding. Five Canadian angel investors who make a point of investing in companies that will make a positive societal impact are supporting the company, as is Grand Challenges Canada.
Currently, the drill cover is in 13 hospitals in Uganda and it has also worked with SIGN Fracture Care International, a charity that works to improve fracture orthopedic trauma care around the world.
“We supported them during the earthquake in Nepal,” Buchan said. “We’ve also supported a group called Canadian relief for Syria, which is supplying equipment to hospitals in Syria during the conflict.”
The company is currently working to expand throughout Africa and has also had single pilots in a number of different countries.
“Our focus for the summer will be east Africa,” Buchan said. “Right now we’re in Kenya and Ethiopia, trying to build our market there, and in Malawi and Tanzania.”
He also sees big opportunities in Latin America, India and southeast Asia, where a number of countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Philippines are trying to build orthopedic capacity.