“I think it comes down to the character of the founder: being humble, being open to listening to people who are smarter than you, but not blindly following; gathering as much information as you can, giving it the time that you have and making an informed decision.” — Armen Bakirtzian
What makes a startup successful? It’s a question on a lot of entrepreneurs’ minds these day. In this second instalment of our Successful Startups series (read the first instalment here), we’re reaching out to startups in our ecosystem to get their take on some of the most often-cited success factors. This time, we spoke with Armen Bakirtzian, co-founder and CEO of Avenir Medical, an early-stage orthopedic intelligent instruments company and a client of MaRS, which successfully raised $3.3 million of Series A financing in September.
Give us a quick introduction to Avenir Medical.
Avenir Medical helps orthopedic surgeons align and place implants properly in the body during joint replacement surgery, a practice they currently do by sight, which makes it less precise. Our device helps them do the surgery more accurately the first time and avoids unnecessary complications.
How would you characterize the current stage of your company?
We started the company in October 2010, so we have been around for three years. As a medical device company, we’re still in the early stages, and we haven’t sold any products yet, so we’re still a startup.
What kind of educational background and industry experience did you have before working on Avenir Medical?
I did my undergrad at the University of Waterloo in mechatronics engineering. My two co-founders and I were in the same fourth-year design class and were project teammates. After we graduated, we weren’t yet committed to the idea of entrepreneurship and we didn’t exactly know what it was. We went off and did our master’s degrees in different disciplines and different locations. I did mine in biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto, one of my co-founders did his in electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo and the other did his in medical robotics at McMaster University. During the summer leading into the final year of our master’s degrees, we entered and won the Next Top Entrepreneur Start-Up Pitch Competition at the Ontario Centres of Excellence Discovery 2010 conference. That gave us access to a whole bunch of orthopedic surgeons who validated our idea and gave us the confidence to commit to entrepreneurship full time.
Do you have any training specific to entrepreneurship?
No specific training on entrepreneurship or anything like that. It was kind of learn as you go. We had excellent guidance from the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo. We’ve been receiving informal training from their staff ever since we moved our company there in 2010. We have also surrounded ourselves with mentors from orthopedics, medical devices and surgery.
Tell me about the recent success you’ve had with your startup.
We closed our Series A at the end of September. It was led by the MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund and included angel groups in Waterloo, Toronto and Boston. We’ve raised over $3 million and it’s been one of our largest successes to this day.
What mix of factors do you think helped you to achieve this success?
I think, first and foremost, it comes down to the mentality of the founders. We’ve always been coachable and we’ve always listened to what people have to say. We’ve always had open minds and I think that helped us navigate whatever issues we had along the way. I think these qualities have been huge contributors to our success, but it’s not really success until we exit.
What’s the next success story you’d like to be able to tell?
We’re gearing up for our first live case later this year. We’ve been looking forward to this day ever since we had our first prototype at Waterloo: to be able to use our product in the operating room live for the first time. This is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time.
A recipe for entrepreneurial success
We asked Armen to rate the importance of the following factors on a scale of one (low) to five (high) based on his own experience with Avenir Medical. Here is his take on a recipe for entrepreneurial success.
Formal education: It depends on what role you play in the company. I have formal training as an engineer, but in the past three years I haven’t done any engineering work. For me it was useful for developing a mindset. Going through engineering at the University of Waterloo is not easy by any means. It teaches you discipline.
Industry experience: I’m biased because I had no industry experience when I came into this. It’s definitely something that can be acquired and that is useful, and it’s a requirement if you want to raise any money. But I don’t think industry experience is necessary to start your own company.
Professional network: Often it’s more about who you know than what you know. Your network can connect you with the right person who has the right experience or the right person who has the technical background or the right person who has the money. I would say that connections are extremely important.
Profit orientation: It’s not as important when you’re in the early stages. As entrepreneurs, we think more of value generation than revenue or profit. I think, especially at an early stage, you want to show that you’ll get to profitability.
Growth orientation: You always want to be bigger and better, but at the same time, you want to grow methodically and not expand too much too fast. Yes, growth is important, but I think calculated growth is the most important.
Export orientation: Unfortunately, being a Canadian company, you almost have no choice, so I would say that’s a 5.
Learning orientation: Being open to learning is one of the most important things you can do.
Access to capital: Can I say that’s a 10? Yeah it’s 5, top of the list.
Optimism: t’s good to be optimistic—it keeps you motivated. But you don’t want to be blindly optimistic, thinking it’s going to work out without putting the time and the effort to make sure it works out. Optimism is a dangerous one, but I think it’s very important.
Stay tuned for the next part in our series on the recipe to entrepreneurial success on December 12.