Verb’s Huennekens unveils vision of next-gen robotic surgery


Verb Surgical is working on what it sees as "Surgery 4.0": the next iteration of surgery that incorporates robotics, advanced visualization, machine learning, data analytics and connectivity. It expects that its technology could translate into real access for billions globally who currently don’t have access to surgery by lowering costs and reducing the training threshold.

Along with Johnson & Johnson’s ($JNJ) Ethicon and Alphabet’s ($GOOG) Verily, Verb expects to have a fully working prototype surgical system by year end. Ethicon already divulged earlier this year that there was a prototype of the robotic system. A surgical system isn’t expected to be on the market, though, until 2020.

“We envision a future in surgery where we move from having a mainframe computer to a PC on every desk to a cell phone in every pocket,” Verb President and CEO Scott Huennekens told FierceMedicalDevices. "Everybody has access at a much lower cost with a much lower threshold for training."

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He said that Ethicon is specifically contributing its surgical instrumentation, while Verily and Google are bringing to the table data analytics and machine learning tech. The expectation is that these surgical systems will talk to each other--and learn systematically.

Huennekens notes that about 600,000 robotic surgeries--which are largely laparoscopic and in the U.S.--are performed annually. He said he would like to see the Verb system used to conduct more than 10 million surgeries on a global basis. But he sees this as a long game, like in the computing analogy, a process that’s likely to span 20 or more years.

He also expects surgery to gradually become more automated, likening Verb’s system to the evolution of automobiles with ever-more-automated features that have culminated in the driverless car.

“We’re a long way from a fully automated robot to do surgery,” Huennekens cautions. Up first, he expects to see automatic features such as advanced suturing and image identification. Verb is working on approaches to open and laparoscopic surgery that can be used on “everything from the pelvis to the neck,” he added.

All told, the price tag for this ambitious vision is expected to be more than $300 million, Huennekens said. He noted that more than 200 people are working on the project--about 100 at Verb, with another roughly 50 at Ethicon and another 50 or so at Verily.

Verb is an independent company that was formed in December 2015; it’s financed by investment from Ethicon, Johnson & Johnson Innovation–JJDC and Verily.

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