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Google and J&J form company to make surgical robots

January 5, 2016
Johnson & Johnson and Alphabet's life sciences unit have formed an independent company to create smaller, smarter and less costly robotic-assisted systems for surgery than those sold by other companies.
Creation of the company, Verb Surgical, follows an announcement in March 2015 by J&J and Google of their plans to pool their technologies and expertise to create robotics for the operating room. Google has since changed its name to Alphabet, and its life sciences unit is now called Verily.
J&J's Ethicon division, a leader in equipment for general surgery, designed a basic prototype of the robot last year and expects it to be a disruptive alternative to existing products, Gary Pruden, global chairman of J&J's medical devices group, said in an interview.
Current robotic systems, including those sold by Intuitive Surgical, are the size of a compact car and require the surgeon to sit at a control panel about three metres from the patient, Pruden said.
Verb's robot will be about 20 per cent the size, allow the surgeon to work closer to the patient and likely be considerably less expensive than current systems, which can cost $2m or more, he said.
And while robots today are used largely to remove cancerous prostate glands and in gynaecological surgery, Verb's system would be designed for wider use, including thoracic surgery, colorectal surgery and bariatric weight loss procedures, J&J said.
It would come loaded with technologies from Alphabet, including machine learning, in which the robot could analyse a video library of images from hundreds of previous surgeries to instruct the surgeon where to cut.
Pruden said further development of Verb's robot would take a few more years.
"Our goal is to have a lower-cost product, with the smallest footprint, with greater capability, that helps to raise the standard of care," Pruden said. "That would be a market disruption."
Scott Huennekens, former chief executive of medical imaging company Volcano, has been named CEO of Verb, which will be headquartered in Mountain View, California.
Verily already has several projects in the works, including the development of a smart contact lens in partnership with Swiss drug maker Novartis that has an embedded glucose sensor. It would allow diabetics to monitor themselves continuously by measuring the blood sugar in their tears.