Medtronic takes its new surgery robot out for a spin with investor debut

Medtronic pulled back the curtain for a first peek at its new soft-tissue surgery robot in a demonstration for investors involving a practice prostate procedure.

Based on a modular and upgradeable design, the Hugo system includes an operating console, central tower and multiple, cart-based robotic arms. Though still under development, the medtech giant hopes it will apply in a range of laparoscopic procedures and robotic-assisted surgeries.

It also aims to employ Medtronic’s existing surgical instrumentation portfolio, plus new dedicated hardware, as well as offer 3D visualization in a package designed to be portable and flexible in its setup with up to four independent robotic arms.

At the investor presentation at a cadaver laboratory in Hartford, Connecticut, Medtronic said it’s expecting an initial global launch and the start of clinical data gathering by the end of March 2020, in the second half of the company’s fiscal year. The company is also planning to file for a CE mark before making FDA submissions, with the goal of securing a 510(k) clearance within two years. The live demonstration of the system involved a robot-assisted prostatectomy, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

The ultimate goal is to offer a per-procedure cost on par with manual laparoscopy, the company said. Though over 50 million surgeries are performed annually, only about 2% internationally involve robotics. 

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The robot's surgical tips (Medtronic)

Some of the largest barriers—hampering what Medtronic estimates is already at least a $4 billion market and growing—involve the costs of capital equipment and consumables, as well as the physical space current systems take up and the time and effort required to convert operating theaters before and after procedures.

The modular design, incorporating rolling carts, is similar to the robotic system being developed by CMR Surgical, which recently raised about $240 million in a massive funding round for its commercialization efforts. Meanwhile, Verb Surgical—the joint venture between Johnson & Johnson and Verily—recently took on a new CEO as it moves its surgery robot toward the market. 

Asking if the move by Medtronic is potentially the "start of Robot Wars" in an investor note, Jefferies analysts compared the company's flexible value proposition to Intuitive Surgical's mainstay da Vinci robot, a fixed system built to be the centerpiece of an operating room, which can lead to under-utilization.

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Last month, CEO Omar Ishrak pointed to the soft-tissue robot as a potential complement to the integrated spine surgery system unveiled in January, following the company’s acquisition of Mazor Robotics last year. Through both, Medtronic plans to develop computer-guided surgery and planning tools for other specialties over the next decade, Ishrak said.  

“In virtually every area that we have a procedural presence, we will look at robotics," he said at the time, starting next with cranial procedures such as the placement of EEGs and leads for deep brain stimulation as well as brain tumor resection.