“Futurpreneur took a chance on us at an early stage. They had confidence in us – the people behind a new technology. That’s the most important thing. In hindsight, we’re super thankful that they did.”
Resisting the appealing pull to undertake medical studies as his father, a highly regarded orthopedic surgeon had done, Armen Bakirtzian decided to pursue engineering at the University of Waterloo.
As he describes his decision, Armen says, “Medicine was always an interest of mine, but there was something tugging me towards engineering. I had always liked to understand how things worked.” Little did he know when he entered the undergraduate program that, within four years, he would not only focus on mechatronics and biomedical engineering, but that he would embark upon a career that has resulted in the development of pioneering technologies aimed at assisting orthopedic surgeons. One of the most gratifying rewards of his academic decision has been the opportunity to consult with his father about his professional pursuits and to establish an enduring familial collaboration that continues to serve their shared commitment to meeting people’s health needs.
When grappling with a fourth-year requirement to develop a project that was aimed at applicable problem-solving, Armen and two of his engineering classmates – Andre Hladio and Richard Fanson – approached Armen’s father. In their discussion, Dr. Bakirtzian outlined the challenges orthopedic surgeons faced during delicate procedures that relied heavily on a surgeon’s visual acuity in aligning joint implants. As Armen recalls, “My dad posed the question to us, ‘Is this something you can help me with?’” After viewing a hip replacement surgery at his father’s invitation, Armen and his colleagues committed to designing a solution specifically for hip procedures. Their design ultimately utilized a complex sensing technology that markedly improved a surgeon’s ability to fit implants with accuracy and precision.
Astute enough to patent their design, upon graduation, the three had given only limited thought to building a business around their innovative technology. As Armen recounts, “When we finished undergrad in 2008, we didn’t really know what to do. Entrepreneurship wasn’t that top-of-mind. But there was something there, something that kept us intrigued. So, even though we didn’t start a business full time, we knew enough that we should keep working on this project.” As each of the three pursued graduate studies at different universities, they continued to get together to work on the surgical device and, as Armen recounts, “we would move things a little bit forward.”
With graduate studies for each almost completed in the summer of 2010, an invitation to participate in a pitch competition sponsored by the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) motivated the trio to establish their company and then “scramble to put together an application.” Within weeks, they emerged as the winners of Ontario’s Next Top Young Entrepreneur Startup Pitch Competition, securing access to a loan of $18,000 to further refine their concept. After subsequent consultation with several orthopedic surgeons “to really test ourselves in a rigorous way,” they received the confirmation they were seeking about the feasibility of their design. The process that would lead to the creation of Intellijoint Surgical Inc. had commenced.
After establishing the business in 2010, access to funds was the primary need of the new company, then known as Avenir Medical. As Armen notes, “Even with the $18,000 from the OCE, we needed more capital. We needed to continuously evolve the core technology and, ultimately, turn it into our first product for hip replacements.” Turning to Futurpreneur, the three newly minted entrepreneurs found a receptive audience. In recalling the experience, Armen reports that “one of the true benefits of Futurpreneur was that they really invested in the company upfront.” Upon completion of the application process, Armen and his partners secured a combined loan of $50,000 from Futurpreneur and its partner, The Spin Master Innovation Fund. As Armen recounts, the loan gave them the ability “to show other funders that we are credible, that we’ve got some money in the bank. That was a big catalyst for us. It was the first major move that really supported the company.”
Armen also underscores the importance of the range of services and supports available from Futurpreneur. Selected three times to participate as a Canadian representative to the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance summits in Nice, France (2011), Mexico City (2012) and Moscow (2013), Armen enthuses, “It was great to be with other entrepreneurs from around the world. It just gives people encouragement that this can be done, other people are doing it.” He also cites the value of the mentorship program as a key benefit. Praising the efforts of his Futurpreneur mentor, Sandy Robertson, Armen notes, “He was extremely supportive of us on the fundraising side. Sandy was a great mentor – introducing us to the right people, putting us in front of the people that had the instincts and courage to follow his support.”
That support proved prescient. Only six years after startup, in 2016, Intellijoint’s three cofounders won the Futurpreneur Canada Grit Award presented by Shopify. Awarded for “creativity, ingenuity and resilience,” Armen points out that the win affirmed that their hard work and determination meant something. As he says, “There’s a sense of pride, of accomplishment that just fuels you to get to the next level.”
Intellijoint’s accomplishments have been nothing short of groundbreaking. Not only did the company bring Intellijoint HIP – the computer navigation system that utilizes miniature camera technology to assist orthopedic surgeons – to market with Health Canada and U.S. FDA approval, the device has had a phenomenal reception. It has been used internationally in more than 20,000 hip replacement surgeries to date, including, fittingly, procedures undertaken by Armen’s dad.
Intellijoint – identified in 2020 by Deloitte as Canada’s fastest-growing technology company – has built on its momentum. It has established a distribution partnership in Australia with the world’s largest implant company. It has introduced its product to Japan. It brought its second product – Intellijoint KNEE for use in knee replacement surgery – to market. It is continually working on new applications, including those for potential use in neurosurgery. Now a confirmed entrepreneur, Armen founded the Medical Innovation Xchange in Kitchener, Ontario in 2019 in an effort to provide Canadian medical technology startups with a means to commercialize new products globally. He sees it as a way of both giving back and encouraging new entrepreneurs: “As a proud Canadian, being able to create or influence an ecosystem gives our country an ability to generate technologies that are extremely valuable and lifealtering. We can create a domestic sector here in Canada.”
In reminiscing about the 11 years since starting up and Intellijoint’s many successes, Armen returns to the influence and guidance of his father on his company’s development. “We went from a conversation to a company. I was in his operating room with the product. I was right by his side in the same operating room where we ideated this thing seven years before. I mean, it’s hard to beat that.”