CEO: Scott Huennekens
Based: Mountain View, California
Johnson & Johnson and Verily launched their joint venture, Verb Surgical, in December 2015, nine months after J&J and what was then Google Life Sciences inked a partnership surrounding robotic surgery. The initial tie-up coincided with increased FDA interest in robotics, as the agency announced a public workshop to inform future regulation of robotic surgery.
Verb’s mission is to create “leading-edge, robotic-assisted surgery products,” leveraging surgical instrumentation from J&J’s Ethicon unit and Verily’s data analytics and machine learning capabilities. Its ultimate goal? To change the face of surgery and, through robotic surgery systems, to offer surgeons and hospitals more minimally invasive surgical options and improve patient outcomes.
What makes Verb fierce
Entering the robotic surgery fray is no small task—Intuitive Surgical had a significant head start over emerging competitors and has long dominated the space. But while the market leader offers its da Vinci systems and instruments for a range of disciplines, including thoracic, urologic and general surgeries, Verb has eyes on developing systems for more difficult surgeries, such as those for cancer.
"We are creating a platform with the potential that we can give every patient access to the outcomes of the best surgeon," Gary Pruden, J&J’s EVP and worldwide chairman for medical devices, said in May last year. "Our focus will be to help drive complex surgical oncology procedures to minimally invasive approaches and to help improve and standardize the outcomes in challenging procedures such as thoracic lobectomy, gastrectomy and low anterior resection.” Verb is also developing approaches for open and laparoscopic surgery that can be used on “everything from the pelvis to the neck,” CEO Scott Huennekens said.
Verb may be focusing on robotics, but it doesn’t just want to change what we think of as robotic surgery—it wants us to change how we think of surgery in general: "First of all, we think of us not as a robotics company but as a surgical platform company," said Huennekens, as reported by MDDI. "If you think of open surgery as Surgery 1.0, minimally invasive surgery and laparoscopic surgery as Surgery 2.0, robotics surgery as 3.0, we really think that the next era is 4.0.”
And just what is Surgery 4.0? Verb calls it “digital surgery.” Instead of producing robotics that are used in a small percentage of surgeries, Huennekens envisions robotics to be more like a mainframe computer that is “always on.” Without going into too many details, Huennekens said Verb is trying to integrate live imaging and visualization with instrumentation in a system that employs algorithms to aid in decision-making.
What to look for
It’s still early days for Verb, which has been keeping mum on its activities. When they launched the JV, neither side divulged financial details, but Verb draws funding from Ethicon, JJDC and Verily. Last year, Ethicon disclosed that a prototype surgical system was in the works and could hit the market by 2020.
Around 600,000 robotic surgeries are performed each year in the U.S., but Huennekens would like to see a Verb surgical robot carry out more than 10 million procedures each year, all over the world. He expects the price tag for this vision to exceed $300 million. — Amirah Al Idrus, @FierceBiotech