Intuitive Surgical: Watch Out For Google & J&J's New Kid on the Block

Verb Surgical , backed by Google and Johnson & Johnson, aims to bring smaller, cheaper and faster robots with the goal of changing the robotic surgery paradigm established by the likes of Intuitive Surgical.

December 10, 2015

3 Min Read
Intuitive Surgical: Watch Out For Google & J&J's New Kid on the Block

Arundhati Parmar

Johnson & Johnson on Thursday formalized its March announcement that it was going to collaborate with Google Life Sciences (now called Verily) to develop advanced surgical solutions, by creating a new company called Verb Surgical.

Verb Surgical will be based in Mountain View, CA, and led by Scott Huennekens, who was the president and CEO of Volcano Corp. between 2002 and 2015. The company is formed using intellectual property from both Ethicon, the surgical division of J&J, and Verily. The company has already hired vice presidents of research and technology, engineering and product development, and marketing, as well as a director of clinical marketing.

J&J has previously said the new robotic surgery tools will have a smaller footprint and allow surgeons to work closer to patients. Greater color on this was provided by Henry Brandon, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, who sounded a confident note that the Verb Surgical robot, a prototype of which was built by Ethicon  last year, will be 20% smaller than Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci system. In a research note published Thursday, Brandon noted that the Verb Surgical robot would also be significantly cheaper than the da Vinci—the average selling price of the da Vinci system is about $1.68 million.

Ethicon, which is the surgical division of J&J, is developing surgical instruments for Verb Surgical’s new robotics-assisted platform. The plan is to marry minimally invasive surgical tools developed at Ethicon with Google’s analytics capabilities to help surgeons make informed decisions during procedures.

"We believe Verb Surgical has the potential to change the future of surgery, not just robotic surgery,” said Gary Pruden, Worldwide Chairman, Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices, in a news release Thursday. “The team has already made meaningful progress on the robotics platform, which is being developed for application across a host of surgical specialties.”  

Those specialities include but are not limited to thoracic, colorectal, and bariatric procedures, according to Brandon.

"JNJ expects the Verb system to come loaded with technologies from Alphabet [the parent entity of Google and Verily], including 'machine learning,' in which the robot could analyze a video library of images from hundreds of previous surgeries in order to instruct the surgeon where to cut," Brandon wrote. 

Intuitive Surgical may not be sweating it now, given that commercialization of products from Verily and J&J's new kid on the block is several years away, Brandon said. But long term the ball will be squarely in the court of the pioneering force in robotic surgery to out-innovate not only Verb Surgical but other companies like TransEnterix poised to enter the U.S. market with the expected approval of SurgiBOT in the new year.

[Photo Credit: user Sage78]

Arundhati Parmar is senior editor at MD+DI. Reach her at [email protected] and on Twitter @aparmarbb

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