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A team of UBC engineers wants to make surgery safer for “the other 6 billion.”

Orthopedic drills, commonly used across Canada and other wealthy countries for bone surgeries, cost $30,000 – cost-prohibitive for hospitals in many developing regions. So the affordable alternative offered by Arbutus Medical, one of five social ventures joining Sauder’s Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub, is already gaining recognition across the globe as they are getting the product into the hands of doctors in war-torn regions like Syria and areas stricken by disaster like Haiti and the Philippines.

The fast-growing startup has designed a drill cover – a medical grade fabric covering that fits over a regular hardware store drill – that turns a cheap and accessible tool into a sterilized device ready for the operating room. Making sterilization easier is crucial because doing surgery with an unclean drill “just about guarantees an infection,” says Arbutus Medical’s CEO Florin Gheorghe.

He says their drill cover also vastly speeds up surgeries compared to using existing hand-operated drills often used in the developing world, which are much more labour-intensive than a power drill. Swapping out a drill cover for each surgery is also far faster than having to sterilize an entire drill after every patient.

The power of business to do good

Now that Arbutus Medical has found a home at the Innovation Hub, Gheorghe and his fellow engineers are set to fast track their business. The year-long accelerator program, an initiative of the Sauder School of Business’s Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing, supports social ventures – startups dedicated to enacting positive social and environmental change. There they will receive mentoring from Sauder faculty, alumni and industry experts and work alongside the program’s other social entrepreneurs in a dynamic communal workspace. They will also have full-time support from a paid intern in the summer.

Florin Ghoerghe, Elise Huisman, Michael Cancilla, Lawrence BuchanGheorghe says he and his team are excited to learn from mentors well-versed in the social enterprise approach of balancing social and environmental impact with the financial bottom line. “A full year of these resources will be huge for us,” he says.

This year, the Innovation Hub, established three years ago with a $1 million grant from Coast Capital Savings, is helping five social ventures tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges while making a profit.

“Social ventures are thriving in Vancouver’s dynamic entrepreneurial community and there’s a growing recognition of the power of business to do good in the world,” says Sauder Associate Professor James Tansey, Executive Director of the Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing. “This year’s ventures have the potential to solve some very important social and environmental challenges. We’re excited to help them accelerate to their next stage of growth and continue our work establishing Vancouver as a global hub of social innovation.”

Relief from disasters and conflict across the globe

Arbutus Medical’s story began with UBC’s Engineers in Scrubs program, when the student team was tasked by the Uganda Sustainable Trauma Orthopedic Program – an initiative at UBC’s Faculty of Medicine – to find a way to break through the cost barriers facing orthopedic surgeons in developing countries. Gheorghe was brought onto the team later, and co-founded Arbutus Medical as a social venture with the drill cover as its first product.

Their drill cover has been used by doctors for a year and a half now, and they’ve expanded their reach well beyond Uganda. They’re working with organizations in Syria doing surgeries for people affected by the civil war, and are also moving into another conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. Their drill covers are in use in disaster recovery efforts in the Philippines and Haiti, and they’re in demand in a handful of other countries in Africa and Asia.

In September, Arbutus Medical landed a grant from Grand Challenges Canada, and the team is hoping for another round of funding from them, which could be $1 million – if they can match that funding from other sources. They need the money as they’re getting flooded with requests from surgeons clamouring for the drill cover, and Gheorghe says they want to be prepared to take their drill covers into a disaster zone at short notice. It’s a tall order, but Gheorghe says he and his team are passionate about making that happen.

“We want to put a drill cover in the hand of every surgeon across the developing world,” he says.

Top photo of Arbutus Drill Cover courtesy of the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility
Photo of Arbutus Medical team by Kent Kallberg (left to right: Florin Gheorghe, Elise Huisman, Michael Cancilla, Lawrence Buchan)