Doctors are preparing a patient for surgery in an operating room in rural Idaho. They make a small, thumb – sized incision into the patient and insert a small robot while a surgeon is putting on a headset of virtual reality throughout the country, grabbing their controllers and preparing to operate.
While this scene may now seem like science fiction, a startup called Vicarious Surgical, based in Charlestown, Mass., is developing the technology to make this vision a reality.
Adam Sachs and Sammy Khalifa, co – founders of the company, have been developing and refining the technology since they met as undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The 27-year – old Sachs said that when they graduated from MIT, he and Khalifa formally launched the company about five years ago and have worked on it ever since.
“We worked on ways of miniaturizing robotics and putting all the surgical motion into the abdominal cavity,” says Sachs. “If you put all the movement in the abdominal cavity, you are not confined to moving around the sites of the incision.”
The potential for combining their miniature robots with the ability to see inside the body using virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift was what really set the brains buzzing the founders.
“The ‘ Eureka ‘ wasn’t it! ‘ Moment, but as the vision came together more like two or three weeks, ‘ says Sachs.” More human – like and virtual reality we can make robotics would give you that presence in the body.
The two founders initially bootstrapped their startup and then raised a small seed round, then started to constantly close larger sections of a rolling round of luminaires such as Bill Gates through his Gates Frontier fund, Khosla Ventures, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, AME Cloud Ventures (Yahoo founder’s investment firm Jerry Yang), Neil Devani, Singularity Holdings investor, and Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.
The company has raised some $ 31.8 million in total to support its technology development.
For Sachs and Khalifa, while the technology was widely applicable in areas that would yield faster results than healthcare, it was important to tackle the health market first, says Sachs.
“Many people have pointed out that there are many applications in our technology. But health care is really meaningful to us for all the reasons people talk about,” says Sachs. “I have the luxury of working on a project that is technologically fascinating and socially meaningful.”
In the Sachs family, science and entrepreneurship operates. Adam’s father, Ely Sachs, is a MIT professor and co-founder of Desktop Metal, the revolutionary 3D printing company.
According to Sachs, the company’s development of what Sachs calls tiny humanoid robots has led to several innovations in robotics.
“Imagine a very robotic version of two human arms and one human head,” Sachs says. “Two robotic arms with the same degree of freedom and proportions of a human weapon and a camera placed above the robot’s shoulders … it’s a few inches across.”
A surgeon can remotely control the movements of the robot to operate on a patient using the motorized robot. “They can be in another room or they can be hundreds of miles away (with an excellent connection to the internet),” Sachs says.
The primary feedback for surgeons using Vicarious ‘ technology is virtual, says Sachs. They look through the robot’s “eyes” and they can look down and see the arms of the robot. “We track the arm movement of the surgeon and imitate their arms and hands. The primary feedback is to create the surgeon’s impression of presence as if they had been reduced.
The mission of the founders and investors of Vicarious Surgical is to drive down both the cost of higher – impact surgery and access to the best surgeons through remote technologies.
The medical robots market is very lucrative. Johnson & Johnson announced earlier today Auris Health’s $ 3.4 billion acquisition — a manufacturer of robotic diagnostics and surgical tools. According to a report from Allied Market Research, estimates put the robotic surgery market somewhere around $ 90 billion.
“We like investing in things that really change the industry if they work. The future is definitely minimally invasive surgery and surgical robotics, and it’s just beginning,” says Dror Berman, a managing director with Innovation Endeavors.
“From a total of 313 million surgical procedures, 900,000 surgeries were performed using surgical robotics. It’s a low percentage and buying those is very expensive … Overall, it’s not being offered to the vast majority of patients. Vicarious is about democratizing that access … if it works, it will open up a huge market for people who can use much better surgery procedures, “says Berman.
“One of the issues is that smaller hospitals are unable to afford these $ 2 million robots,” Sachs says. “By making the devices small and fitting the movement inside a patient, we can expand long – term access and in smaller hospitals where a surgeon could initiate a procedure.”
Later, as Vicarious is able to build taxonomies of different surgical practices and methods, the hospitals could begin to automate more aspects of the procedures to the extent that the robot can handle many of these surgeries.
Currently, the company is testing its miniature robots in laboratories and would not comment on the use of animal subjects. Vicarious also shapes the human abdomen and performs as many virtual tests as possible.
Sachs says the new funding will take the company through its Food and Drug Administration applications.
“Many of our long – term vision is about growing and scaling our technology to the point where it is accessible not only to major cities and hospitals in the U.S., but also to small towns and towns in the U.S. and around the world,” says Sachs. “It’s about the long – term democratization of the operation that can come from surgical robotics.”