Five Questions with Intellijoint Surgical Co-founder and CTO Andre Hladio
Intellijoint Surgical is a Canadian medical device company based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. Founded in 2010, Intellijoint has developed technology that helps surgeons operate more precisely and safely when performing hip and knee replacements. Their technology has been used to perform more than 40,000 surgeries in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Andre Hladio is co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at Intellijoint. He also happens to be a major intellectual property enthusiast. He recently sat down for a chat with CCI President Benjamin Bergen to talk about his perspective on IP, and how it fits into Intellijoint’s overall business.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Benjamin Bergen: So tell me a bit about how Intellijoint Surgical got started, and how early IP protection entered into the company’s strategy?
Andre Hladio: So what we tried to do with Intellijoint is take something that was, historically, complicated and cumbersome and make it easy.
When we started the company, we just decided, well, let’s just start with a blank canvas, and let’s just do what we think is right. The ability for us to take risks was much higher, because we were so naive.
And that led us to taking, essentially the legacy technology — which is big, large capital systems — and miniaturizing it down to the point where you don’t have a big camera in the operating room, you don’t have big capital equipment in the room, you have very small instruments that are effectively right-sized for the application. At that time, that was total total hip replacement surgery, and now our technology is also used for total knee replacement surgery.
When it came to intellectual property, we started the company when we were students, out of our fourth year design project at the University of Waterloo.
And we thought, well, the University of Waterloo has an open IP policy — an inventor-owned IP policy — so if they have that, maybe we should draft a patent. So we did it, not even knowing the rights that a patent gave you. And I drew the short straw, so I was assigned to draft our first patent, being just utterly clueless. And we muddled our way through that, and then it wasn’t until probably about the second or third patent that I even learned what the rights are that a patent endows you with.
So that’s kind of how it started for us. We were just in this learner mindset, and just dove in.
BB: That’s great. Often not knowing is the best way to get started. Today, in terms of how you guys view IP, is that part of your corporate strategy? Do you consider IP as an investment? And do IP considerations sort of guide your R&D activities?
AH: IP considerations do guide our R&D activities, and vice versa, our R&D activities significantly guide our IP activities, because you can’t really predict when you’re going to get that idea that is potentially patentable.
As far as how we view IP, as a business, Intellijoint has a long-term outlook. We want to grow our company in Canada. In medtech, it’s far more common to want to sell your company so that a larger company can distribute your product, because distribution is very expensive.
We’re trying to grow our company, and that really governs our IP strategy. For us, we know that at some point in our journey, we’re going to need to compete, and we’re going to need to be ready to compete along all of the different vectors of competition in the market. And so what a shame it would be if we grow our company — a real Canadian success story generating lots of revenue, having lots of employees — and someone takes us out because we’re weak in IP. So we just want to be in a state of readiness, and a position of strength in this. This applies equally to IP as it would in terms of so many other aspects of our business.
BB: In Canada, and especially with scale-up companies, not a lot of folks invest heavily in IP, and certain companies treat it as an unnecessary consideration. What do you think of that? What do you say to people when you run into those types of sentiments?
AH: If we’re talking about medtech, it’s almost a non-negotiable dimension. And it’s because medical devices are generally well-suited towards the patent system. You have a lot of software interacting with systems and devices — different methods and processes — so you have a very fertile land for patents within medtech. And also, the timelines that medtech operates under are very aligned with the timelines of the patent lifecycle. Medtech isn’t changing drastically every year; it’s a slower-moving industry. Patents can be a bit slower moving in terms of filing and prosecuting and then enforcing. So for medtech, I would argue this is non-negotiable. There’s no debate about whether or not you should invest in IP if you’re in medtech.
But you know, being from Kitchener-Waterloo, we have a lot of software companies here. And there’s this misconception that IP i s not important for software. And I think the reality is — it is important for software. I think there are just different dynamics at play, there are different ways to leverage IP, and different forms of IP that one must consider.
BB: You sort of touched on this with your comment about getting the short straw in terms of actually having to file IP for Intellijoint in the early stages; IP is often not viewed as the fun side of business, right? It’s a bit like eating your vegetables — not necessarily the most sexy.
For you, is it something that business leaders can get excited about?
AH: Everyone needs to eat their vegetables. But I feel that IP might be something more complex.
I think for IP professionals and executives who are thinking about IP, it’s almost more like chess. It becomes very fun to see how things unfold, and there’s this element of uncertainty, because you never have a full picture of what IP other people have. But they also don’t have a full picture of what you have. And no one knows what each other’s intentions are.
So I think IP is extremely fun when you get into it.
BB: How do you think the government could better steer companies towards investing in IP? At CCI we’ve talked about making IP costs eligible under things like SR&ED. Do you think that that could help move the needle?
AH: One hundred percent. I think that’s a good recommendation from CCI.
Also, in some weird ways, procurement is something the government can focus on. Like, let’s start getting revenue coming into these innovative domestic companies. Traditionally, people tend to prioritize filing in the U.S., but wouldn’t it be great if we had companies actually seeking patent protection here because the market in Canada is worth it?
There’s a link between revenue growth and the importance of IP. At some point, if any executive or board of directors has an IP issue on their hands and there’s some sort of lawsuit coming at them, IP is going to be on their list of things to care about from then on out. And a prerequisite for getting that sort of legal action coming at you is that you’re making revenue. So I really think it comes down to that; we need to have companies operating at scale, and at some point, those companies will understand and appreciate IP, and get excited about it.
I agree with the SR&ED piece, 100%. But also, you know, the other channel is procurement; I think that would move the needle.
The Council of Canadian Innovators is a national business council of more than 150 scale-up technology companies headquartered in Canada. Our members are job-creators, philanthropists and leading commercialization experts in the 21st century digital economy.