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Do You Have What It Takes to Become the Next Intuitive Surgical?

Three robotics experts at MD&M West looked at the iterative process of developing medical robotic tools and discussed valuable takeaways from watching the industry leader, Intuitive Surgical, rise to the top.

Intuitive Surgical set a high bar for new entrants. But there are opportunities today that new surgical robotics companies can take advantage of that Intuitive didn't have when the company started out more than two decades ago. A panel of experts spoke at MD&M West in Anaheim, CA this week about the process of developing medical robotic tools and the valuable lessons learned from watching Intuitive rise to the top.

"In the year 2000, if Intuitive Surgical walked into a room and said 'we're going to be worth $60 billion in 20 years' nobody on the planet would have believed them. Nobody," said Leo Petrossian, co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles, CA-based Neural Analytics.

His colleague on the panel, Thomas Low, chuckled in agreement.

"That's what happened," Low said. "Still can't believe it."

Today, Low is the director of robotics at Menlo Park, CA-based SRI International, but he has spent much of his career focused on effective telemanipulation of robotically-assisted surgery. He was a member of the development team that created Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci surgical system, and Google Verily's new Verb Surgical platform.

Low defines robotics as the ability of a machine to manipulate its environment and adapt to what it discovers in that environment.

"In reality, the robots that are now called surgical assistive robots, things like the da Vinci, by that definition would fall short because fundamentally they are simply repeating the surgeon's movements, the surgeon is making all the high-level decisions," Low said.

That is changing, however, as things like artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies are integrated into the technology, he said.

But as with a lot of cutting-edge medical technologies, funding remains a challenge for some robotics newcomers. So what does it take to get a new medical robotic system off the ground? Knocking on a lot of doors, according to the panelists.

"When we started this process 35 years ago we had developed this technology with funding from the government, and when we went to Sand Hill Road ... they thought we were absolutely nuts," Low said. "Now, what we were promoting was surgery from a distance and there never has been, and maybe never will be a market for that commercially."

But it was by listening to the venture capitalists and physician partners that the company eventually developed the "killer app," Low said, which is minimally invasive surgery.

"Intuitive is a great success story now but for many, many years it languished," Low said. "I remember going up to UCSF and literally the da Vinci was in the back of the supply cabinet behind the mops because nobody used it. And then the urologists discovered this amazing tool and it put Intuitive on the map."

Now, robotics is hotter than ever

"The original patents that we licensed have expired and so there's an in-rush of interest from other folks that see the ridiculous value that Intuitive has generated and of course they have a huge head start. But to get funding you need to have a different, compelling idea. And just building a different da Vinci, I wouldn't fund that."

The panelists also offered some interesting career advice for students and entry-level roboticists and AI developers. Click here to see their 7 Pro Tips for New and Aspiring Roboticists.

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