Arbutus Medical is a company that aims to improve access to surgical power tools for surgeons around the world. Their flagship product, the DrillCover, is a sterilizable enclosure that allows surgeons to use an off-the-shelf hardware drill for orthopedic surgery. Four years ago, we interviewed Lawrence Buchan, Arbutus’ co-founder. We caught up with him again to see how Arbutus is faring. He told us about two new products, two new markets, and the positive social impact they’ve catalyzed.
The company has evolved quickly in four years. When we first spoke in 2014, the DrillCover was a pre-market R&D initiative funded by a Grand Challenges Canada grant. The company incorporated in December of that same year and raised over $2 million to scale the DrillCover product line globally. In 2016 they listed their DrillCover System with the FDA and gained Health Canada registration. Today, their products have enabled surgeons to treat an estimated 36,000 patients in 32 countries, and have a goal to reach 50,000 patients in 2019. Buchan was excited to update me on two new products Arbutus has developed.
“We expanded the DrillCover product line so that surgeons can cut, ream, and drill with cannulation,” Buchan told me. “The new products allow surgeons to handle any type of orthopedic procedure. The platform continues our theme of ‘Frugal Innovation’ – making radically affordable tools with smart design and expert medical engineering. Expensive tools affect all doctors, everywhere in the world, from Uganda to the UK. Products like this can democratize safe surgical equipment.”
While Arbutus’ impact grows, Buchan told us it wasn’t easy and they’ve met with their share of challenges. They struggled to get products to market efficiently in emerging markets. Regulatory barriers and inefficient distribution channels led the company to focus in the short term on partnerships with NGOs.
Arbutus now believes they have a strong strategy to reach surgeons and patients at affordable prices by maintaining strong partnerships with NGOs, such as the AO Alliance Foundation, Canadian Network for International Surgery, and Uganda Sustainable Trauma Orthopaedic Program.
Arbutus has recently expanded to veterinary medicine. “Our goal is ‘safe surgery for all’. Ideally, we can make our products available to every surgeon, at an affordable price – especially in the lowest income settings of the world,” said Buchan. “At the same time, we’ve realized that there is interest in radically affordable tools in every country, not just low-resource settings, and among veterinarians as well. Expensive equipment affects everyone. So, we can address needs in more conventional markets such as veterinary medicine, and efficiently propel our business to give us time to scale throughout low- and middle-income countries. We’re excited to be able to help improve access to affordable equipment for veterinarians too – it fits our ‘safe surgery for all’ mission.”
The veterinary market was Arbutus’ most significant driver of growth in 2018, with sales across North America and Europe. Arbutus estimates that over 21,000 animals have been treated using DrillCover products. Most have been canine knee surgeries in the U.S.
The veterinary uses haven’t been limited to domestic pets. In one instance, a vet from the Baltimore Zoo, Dr. Mike Cranfield, took Arbutus’ DrillCover to Rwanda as part of a mission to treat endangered mountain gorillas. “The Gorilla Doctors first grabbed our attention when about a year and a half ago an Arbutus Medical supporter purchased a DrillCover to donate it to them,” said Fedja Mulabdic, Arbutus’ Director of R&D. “We were immediately blown away by their impact in bringing the Mountain Gorilla population back from the brink of extinction. Trauma is common among the small Mountain Gorilla population. Accidents, fighting, and injuries caused by snare traps are the main causes – all of which can lead to the loss of a limb or death. In the event Dr Cranfield’s team needs to perform an orthopedic surgery, the DrillCover will go a long way towards mitigating the risk of infection.”
Arbutus has also expanded into military field medicine. Both the Canadian Armed Forces and US Army have purchased products for the military setting because the DrillCover system is now the lightest, most packable orthopedic drill on the market, featuring a portable hardware drill and “covers which fold to the size of a pair of socks,”said Buchan. Conventional surgical drills are too heavy and bulky for mobile surgical teams to transport.
Arbutus sees military field medicine as a fitting extension of their “safe surgery for all”mission too. In one instance, the DrillCover was used by a field hospital in a conflict zone to repair the tendon of a local farmer whose finger had been severed and needed surgery.
“Almost every injury in a conflict zone includes some kind of orthopedic trauma. The DrillCover system makes surgery more efficient in an environment where every second counts. All mobile surgical teams need this product in their kit,” said Randy Wilkinson, a 20-year pararescue veteran (US Air Force) and VP Government Sales for Tryco Inc., Arbutus Medical’s distributor to the US Government.
Looking toward 2019, Arbutus was recently pre-approved for the Build-in-Canada Innovations Program (BCIP), where it will receive a contract up to $1 million in order for groups like the Canadian Armed Forces, domestic public hospitals, Global Affairs Canada, and Canadian NGOs to evaluate and use the new-to-market DrillCover PRO product line.
These initiatives keep the company going. “We’re in need of capital to grow,” said Buchan. Arbutus is actively seeking mission-aligned impact investors to join a fundraising round that will grow allow the company to grow their veterinary and military business lines and continue building partnerships with NGOs.
To this day, Arbutus still sticks to its roots for motivation. “What’s kept us focused in the long run is our mission and goal of “safe surgery for all”. Our role in this fight is improve access to surgical equipment around the world, and ultimately, that’s our final metric. Tackling a complex problem, we need to try a lot of different strategies to make it happen. If we keep iterating and remembering the ‘why’, it will work out.”