Google, J&J partner to advance surgical robotics

Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and Google ($GOOG) have partnered to create new robotic-assisted surgical platforms. The deal is the latest example of Google working with a major life sciences company to make a significant technological advance. Last summer, it partnered with Novartis' ($NVS) Alcon unit to develop smart contact lenses to monitor glucose levels and correct vision in presbyopia patients.

Robotic surgery has made enormous strides in recent years as it is more commonly used in specialized, minimally invasive surgeries using equipment from makers such as Intuitive Surgical ($ISRG) and Stryker ($SYK). But cost and safety have proven early stumbling blocks--something J&J and Google hope to improve on.

The pair isn't alone in its intense focus on robotic surgery. Earlier this month, FDA announced that it would hold a public workshop at the end of July on the scientific, clinical, and regulatory considerations associated with robotic-assisted surgery in order to inform future regulation.

The partners will pool resources and intellectual property to create an innovative robotic-assisted surgical platform. The idea is to improve accuracy, cost efficiency and patient outcomes with the resulting technology that will integrate not only robotics--but also imaging and data analytics.

J&J's Gary Pruden

"This collaboration with Google is another important step in our commitment to advancing surgical care, and together, we aim to put the best science, technology and surgical know-how in the hands of medical teams around the world," Gary Pruden, Worldwide Chairman of the Global Surgery Group at Johnson & Johnson, said in a statement.

J&J has previously declared an interest in robotic surgery, but doesn't market any systems. It does have a partnership with Intuitive Surgical already.

"I am really interested in the aspect of the tissue effects of the business, so cutting, sealing, dissecting, stapling, sewing tissue. We actually have a partnership with the Intuitive team on certain aspects of that, which is really good," Pruden said at J&J's May investor meeting.

"But we're also going to pursue our own de novo approach, which we are. So, we have a program that is up and running and Michael's team is leading that right now. We have got a little ways to go, but I do think that there are opportunities, not just for lower cost, by the way, but improvements in functionality, ease-of-use and movement within the OR," he added, referring to Michael del Prado, the Company Group Chairman of J&J surgery business Ethicon Surgical Care.

Pruden sees robotic surgery at its earliest stages, offering an analogy with the development of information technology. "Where we are in robotics today is where we were 50 years ago with computers that took up the entire room. You are going to get to a point where it's going to be a laptop size sometime in the future. So, I think there is an opportunity there," he concluded.

Del Prado went on to argue that he thinks the next frontier for minimally invasive robotic-enabled surgery is in difficult surgeries, such as with cancer. But he doesn't see general surgery as justifying the costs of robotic systems; Intuitive Surgical's latest robotic system is targeting general surgical procedures.

For its part, Google has been launching into a series of ambitious life science projects, including a swarm of nanotech-robots that would infiltrate the body for disease detection and treatment as well as virtual reality eyeglasses. On the robotic side, it recently received a lot of media attention for a robotic dog. Google went on a shopping spree in 2013 for robotics companies.

The partnership isn't a done deal yet; it is expected to close during the second quarter. Financial terms were not disclosed. The collaboration was facilitated by Johnson & Johnson Innovation in California.

- here is the release