Verily and Johnson & Johnson‘s (NYSE:JNJ) collaborative business Verb Surgical looks to set the stage for a new style of robotic surgery, called “digital surgery,” according to an interview with CEO Scott Huennekens.
Verb Surgical aims to develop a comprehensive surgical platform that incorporates “leading edge” robotic capabilities and medical technology for use in the operating room, according to Johnson & Johnson. The company plans to develop them in partnership with surgeons and hospitals with a goal of “greater hospital efficiency.”
“First of all, we think of us not as a robotics company but as a surgical platform company,” Huennekens told MD&DI. “Instead of having robotics that is used in just 5% of procedures and its like a mainframe computer, we’re thinking of robotics like it’s a PC. It’s always there, it’s always on.”
Verb Surgical aims to shift the paradigm to make advanced robotic surgery platforms lower cost and more accessible, bringing together instruments, visualization and robotics along side decision making algorithms to create a “seamless solution,” Heunnekens said.
“I don’t want to get into too many of the details that we are working on for competitive reasons, but the integration of all those components together and the solutions around procedures, is what we are looking to do. You’ve heard of Moneyball and you may have even seen the movie. There’s moneyball for baseball players. You may think of us as developing algorithms and information, so it’s moneyball for surgeons,” Huennekens told MD&DI.
Heunnekens said he hopes the development will aid in balancing the disparity in performance levels of surgeons, which he called a cottage industry.
“There’s a lot of disparity in the way procedures are done. What we believe is you can use information and more standardized processes in surgery, just like any manufacturing process, to increase quality, lower cost and make the outcomes more uniform,” Huennekens said.
Verb Surgical is looking to develop technologies that aid in more than just robotic surgeries, Huennekens said. The company’s advanced imaging and decision making will aid in open surgeries, minimally invasive surgeries by allowing operators to identify anatomies, decide between perfusion and non-perfusion and determine cancer cells from non-cancer cells.
“Those are the things that we are working on and moving forward with whether it’s just the visualization techniques or injectables that enhance the image as well. I don’t want to get into too much detail in what we are doing there, but it’s where things are headed,” Huennekens told MD&DI.
The unit will come with robotic arms, but they won’t be essential – just tools, Heunnekens said.
“You can stick your endoscope in there and get visualization. You may want to do these things with laparoscopic instruments that are cheaper. There are reasons you use robotics – dexterity and reach are among some. You may want to use them in an open case, where you have a deep region that you want to suture for which you want to use robotic arms than to reach in there and do by hand. We are saying why not?” Huennekens said. “Today robotics is a defined destination. It’s not a tool. In our world, there are no robotic cases. There’s open cases and minimally-invasive cases. You use what you need to do surgeries most effectively. Robotic instruments should be used in open cases or minimally-invasive cases.”
The shift from “robotic surgery” to “digital surgery” will be an important one for the company, Heunnekens added. The company sees the future of procedures as digitized and computer-assisted, with robotics only making up one element of digital surgeries. The pillars of digital surgery are robotics, advanced imaging, machine learning, big data and advanced instrumentation, according to Heunnekens.
Heunnekens touched on the possible cost of the robotic platform, saying it would “cost much less than Intuitive Surgical‘s (NSDQ:ISRG),” and be used in “many more procedures.” He said the combination of increased use and lower price would make the system easier to justify for hospitals.
“Our vision would be that it’s less than $100 to use it. Maybe there will be a premium on a couple of instruments but you are talking about a couple of hundred dollars, not couple of thousand dollars,” Heunnekens said.
As for facing off against Intuitive Surgical, Heunnekens didn’t see that as a major hurdle – instead, the company will be facing off against the “status quo” of non-use of robotic systems.
“We want to have our system in every single OR. Every single OR in 10 years will be a digital surgery OR in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, and it will be starting to have an impact on the rest of the world as well. There’s a different future that exists because it’s not selling a mainframe computer that costs $2.5 million. We’re going to be selling a PC at a different price point.
Heunnekens said the platform will be to the market before 5 years, with a focus on urology, gynecology, general surgery and thoracic surgery.
“I think we are going to see a lot of change in the next 5 years and it’s a $10 to $20 billion opportunity. I am less concerned about the dollars. This translates into the fact that we have the opportunity to impact 10 to 20 million surgeries,” Heunnekens told MD&DI.