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Will Intuitive Stay Ahead of the Robot Competition?

Intuitive Surgical has ramped up product development spending in recent months to prepare for new entrants to the surgical robot market.

Investors appeared unimpressed with Intuitive Surgical's 2018 guidance last week, but during the firm's fourth-quarter earnings call, the management team emphasized the importance of investing in product development to prepare for new entrants to the surgical robot market.

According to Seeking Alpha transcripts of the call, CEO Gary Guthart said investments to deepen Intuitive's original capabilities and to develop new technologies and services were important in the past year. 

"While Intuitive completed its 22nd year in 2017, I firmly believe that computer system medical advancements are in their infancy," Guthart said. "A careful read of the clinical literature makes clear the need for more effective, less invasive and lower total cost to treat solutions to many disease states. The rise of robotic technology, powerful computing, improved sensing, microfabrication, and molecular imaging enable new approaches to old problems."

He added that Intuitive expects to continue investing in improvements in 2018, especially as the firm anticipates the entry of additional competitive systems into some regions of the world over the next several quarters.

"Our company is anticipating increased competition and we are focused on understanding the market’s needs and selling and delivering products and services today and in the future that meet them," Guthart said.

Last month the company filed for an FDA 510(k) clearance of its da Vinci Sp system for urology procedures. The new platform technology was designed to allow high dexterity access with great 3-D vision to confined surgical spaces, Guthart said.  In 2017, Sp was used in human trials in the United States and Hong Kong, and the company is planning a phased launch of the new technology this year, pending clearance.

Guthart also touched on the company's flexible robotics platform, which will first target lung cancer diagnosis. The company does not expect revenue from that program this year though.

Last year FDA cleared TransEnterix's Senhance Surgical Robotic System, and there have been whispers of new flexible robotic technologies in the works from other competitors, but Guthart has dedicated time during the last couple of earnings calls to emphasizing Intuitive's deep experience in the space compared to any newcomer.

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