When Science Fiction Meets Surgery

Imagine you were born in Senegal and your family moved to France when you were one year old. Imagine tragdy strikes your family and you are sent to live on your own in a youth shelter. Imagine are at ease with mathematics and you go on to become an engineer and later specialise in robotics. Imagine you dream of becoming an inventor, that you want to create robots to assists surgeons. How would you go about it, you who have never taken any medical course in your life? What kind of invention will you develop that will convince surgeons to have robots next to them in the operating room?

Today, I am inspired by Bertin Nahum of France. Bertin was born in Dakar in November 1969, in a family of eight children. His parents, who were originally from Benin, decided to migrate to France when he was barely a year old. They settled in the suburbs of the city of Lyon where his father, a trained accountant, open a small neighborhood grocery store with his wife.

Unfortunately, tragedy was to hit the Nahum family in the cruellest way, with the death of his mother when he was barely 8 years old, and his father a few five years later, both succumbing to cardiovascular diseases.

Having no other family to take care of him, the young 14-year-old boy was entrusted to the DDASS (Departmental Directorate of Sanitary and Social Affairs), the state service in charge of taking care of minor orphans. The DDASS placed him in a youth shelter in a town called Ain, some 2 hours from Lyon, where he was to stay till he became 18.

Bertin rarely talks about that part of his life, which was undoubtedly a very difficult time.

“I do not want my story to be a teary story. But let’s say that, because of my history, I built myself a carapace.”

The young man, who was not yet too passionate about education excelled more in sports, especially boxing. He spent so much time training and competing, he ended up becoming Champion of France for the junior boxing league at 17 years old.

As I mentioned, Bertin wasn’t too much into the studies and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do later in life.

“I was a fairly average student. Like many students, I made choices by default, without much conviction. ”

However, his math teacher had noted that the young man was at ease with science and encouraged him to pursue engineering studies.

At the end, it will be maths that will eventually dominate over sports, and lead the young man to the career path where we find him today. Imagine a mathematician with the tenacity and iron character of a boxing champion. What obstacles could possibly resist him?

But I am getting to far ahead of myself; let’s go back in time and continue to follow the young highschool graduate. After obtaining his high school diploma in the science field, Bertin followed the advice of his teacher and enrolled at the National Institute of Applied Sciences (INSA) of Lyon. Considered as a reference engineering school, the INSA Lyon is the oldest – 60 years old – and the largest of the six national institutes of applied sciences in France.

It is while pursuing his studies in electronics that Bertin will finally find the domain of his dreams: robotics.

Bertin was fascinated by the scientific evolutions that allowed things that we only saw in movies when we were kids to be materialized today in the real world.

“Scientific progress has been so extraordinary that today, science and science fiction have merged in one. Today, robots have crossed our screens and our books to enter our realities. Tomorrow, these inventions that once seemed impossible to us will be a normal ingredient of our daily life.”

After obtaining his engineering degree in 1994, Bertin obtained a scholarship from Erasmus – the European exchanged program for between European universities and educational institutions around the world whole – to go for a Master’s degree in robotics at the University of Coventry in the United Kingdom.

It is in Coventry that he will discover medical robotics, when heis afforded a chance to take part in a project of software design in collaboration with the neurocardiology department of the city’s hospital.

“I helped design software that could detect cranial lesions from scanners. It made me want to devote my career to patients, through the creation of robots that could accompany surgeons in their operations. ”

It was surprising and exhilarating to discover that an engineer, like him, could also contribute to public health by simply providing surgeons with tools to reduce the risk of error. Engineering in the service of health, who can say better?

From that moment on, Bertin knew that this he had found his calling. With his engeneering degree from INSA and his Master of Science from Coventry, the doors of the most reputable companies in surgical robotics opened their doors wide.

Bertin was not your typical engineer. Knowing that he wanted to focus on medical engineering, the young man never missed an opportunity to get closer to surgeons, even accompanying them during their interventions, to immerse himself in the reality of the operating room.

“These years allowed me to acquire more knowledge of the surgical robotics sector and to identify areas where I could contribute. ”

He applied his knowledge in the development of solutions for cardiac surgery, urology, orthopedic surgery and brain surgery (neurosurgery).

His end-goal was to become a full fledge inventor and create a robot that could change the way things are done. In the early 2000s, he proposed to his employer the idea of a knee surgery assistance robot, but the firm was not interested, judging that this area had no interest or future.

Frustrated by their lack of vision and risk adversity, Bertin decided that it is time for him to fly on his own.

He took part in the National Competition for the creation of innovative technology orhganised by the Ministry of Education and Research, which he won hands down. With the prize money and the proceeds from the sale of his car, Bertin Nahum create his own company in Montpellier in 2002.
Write down the name and don’t forgt it: Medtech.

Guess what was the first project of his start-up? A robot for knee surgery! He called the robot Brigit!

I would like to tell you that Brigit immediately conquered the markets and that our hero made a name for himself and became a millionaire overnight. Unfortunately no !

The banks and venture capital forms were just as riskadverse as the employer who had refused to invest in his invention. Without capital, it was virtually impossible to produce this expensive machine.

Don’t worry, the story does not end there. One fateful day in 2006, four years after the creation of Medtech, a representative of the American orthopedic surgery company Zimmer, knocked at their their door and advised them Zimmer had heard about his invention and they want to … buy Medtech!!

Bertin could not believe it! He had mixt feeling about this offer. His dream was for his invention to bring in sales that would allow Medtech to invest in other inventions not to sell his business after just a few years of existence.

But at the same time, he was financially strained, and he knew he might have to close the company eventually if he couldn’t find investors.

At the end, Bertin and Zimmer agreed to meet halfway: Zimmer would not buy the whole company, just the patents for Brigit. It was a moment of joy to see his invention embraced by the world leader in his field and sadness for having to let go of his first ‘daughter’!

But Bertin is not one to dwell on the past. It was time to create the more expensive and complex robot he had dreamed of for years: a robot to assist neurosurgeons! With this fresh capital coming from across the Atlantic, the young inventor needn’t have to worry about his lack of financial backers.

Write down the name of his second robot and remember it: Rosa!

Bertin’s second ‘daughter, which he put on the market in 2009, is a robot with an articulated arm that allows neurosurgeons to position their instruments in a more precise manner.

Bertin confided that he gives his robots female names to “to humanize them. ”

And indeed, Rosa is almost human, when you look at everything she can do. Her biggest advantage is that it she allows surgical instruments to be inserted through small incisions in the skin, thus minimizing the amount of skin and tissue to be removed, reducing exposure and the size of the exploration area. This is called minimally invasive surgery, as opposed to open surgery where the surgeon opens the area he wants to operate by making a large incision to have a wide field of vision and access direct to guide and manipulate his instruments.

Ok, I know, what does any of this mean? Lol. Let Bertin put this in simpler terms:

“Rosa is kind of a GPS for brain surgery. The surgeon tells her where he wants to go and she helps them get there.”

That all sounds very simple, doesn’t it? Yet Rosa is anything but simple. And the background: a robot created by an engineer to assist the most complicated operations in the world! It’s extraordinary.

Rosa has become almost indispensable for operations on patients with Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and operations on brain tumors. And don’t worry, Rosa has been approved by the very strict FDA, the US service regulating medical devices intended for human use, and has been the subject of dozens of scientific publications.

This time, Bertin decides to simultaneously target the French and American markets. To this end, Bertin moved to New York with his wife and his two young sons, where he opened an American subsidiary of Medtech. He will spend two years there before returning to France.

These two years of immersion in American life have allowed him to realize the more decisive way that Americans approach business in relation to his adopted country, “this self-confidence” which is taught from the youngest age and that makes people learn to take risks.

Prepare your drums and take out the champagne: Rosa quickly conquered the markets in France, Europe and North America. In just three years, Rosa brings in an annual turnover of 2 million Euros!

And it is not anyone who can afford it: the beautiful Rosa costs 300,000 Euros! Yes, brain surgery doesn’t come cheap.

We are not the only ones celebrating our Franco-Senegalese-Beninese genius: in September 2012, the Canadian science magazine, Discovery Series, ranked Bertin Nahum fourth among the most innovative personalities in the world and whose innovation has improved people’s lives. Guess who were the first three personalities of this list? Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and James Cameron (Avatar and Titanic).

In 2013, Rosa’s inventor received the Legion of Honor in Paris from Minister Fleur Pellerin.

“Dear Bertin Nahum, by the powers that are invested in me, I have the honor to hand you this Legion of Honor.You are the proof that everything is possible, that there is no pre-determined criteria for who can be the entrepreneur or innovator our country, our economy, needs. ”

Although he was moved by this extraordinary honor, Bertin insists that this Legion of Honor is above all “a professional and collective encouragement”.

“The prospect of success has not always been obvious. It reflects the efforts and minds of the women and men who have accompanied me since the creation of Medtech more than a decade ago.”

In 2013, Medtech received the European Society of the Year award in the field of robotics in neurosurgery, awarded by the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. In 2014, Medtech received the “Révélation” award from the Deloitte Mediterranean Technology Fast 50 Awards and the Special Prize from the Occitan Academy of Arts, Letters, Science and Popular Traditions. That same year, Bertin Nahum was awarded an honorary doctorate in technology by his Alma Mater, University of Coventry.

Rosa continues to conquer the world. To date, approximately 4,000 procedures have been performed with the Rosa robot in more than 70 hospitals and clinics around the world.

In 2016, Bertin sold Medtech to Zimmer, the company that bought Brigit in 2009, and with the proceeds of the sale, it launched a new company in 2017. Remember the name: Quantum Surgical. She will also specialize in surgical robotics, but she aims to go even further than her previous projects, for example by using virtual reality. We have no doubt that he will succeed.

After Brigit and Rosa, we are curious to find out the name of his next inventions. I am sure we will find out before long!

When asked if he is the symbol of a visible minority, his answer is categorical: “No!” He does not want his story to recuparated by anyone.

For those who ask him if he is African or French, Bertin answers with a grin that he is a French man born in Senegal of Beninese parents. Although he is proud of the blood of his merchand parents from Benin running through his veins, he also recognizes that France has given him academic and academic opportunities and an environment conducive to innovation that he was unlikely to get in his continent of origin.

Anyway, why should we fight to define where he belongs when he most clearly belongs to the whole world?

Right Your Legacy Bertin! You are the Legacy! #BeTheLegacy#WeAreTheLegacy #Mandela100 #WhatisUMURAGE

Um’Khonde Patrick Habamenshi
Lion Imanzi