Google Launches Spin Off Business Focused On Next Generation Surgical Robots


In March 2015, Google and Johnson & Johnson announced a strategic partnership focused on co-developing next generation surgical robots that will use augmented reality and image recognition software to help surgeons navigate the body and to provide on-screen clinical decision support alerts during the procedure.

For surgeons performing robot-assisted procedures, the announcement is likely welcomed news. In recent years, the medical community has been casting an increasingly skeptical eye toward surgical robots. The machines are prohibitively expensive and have failed to reduce complications or improve outcomes at the rates anticipated when they were first introduced to healthcare. In 2010, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study comparing the cost and outcomes of robotically-assisted procedures and traditionally performed procedures, concluding that the outcomes were comparable and did not justify the increased cost. Following that study, the FDA issued a statement questioning the overall value of surgical robots, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued an updated policy letter stating that robotic-assisted hysterectomies were unwarranted due to their cost and negligible impact on outcomes. Thus far, surgical robots have failed to improve outcomes at levels that justify their use; instead they introduced another high-tech, high-cost alternative to traditional surgical procedures.

The failure of surgical robots to meaningfully improve outcomes could be interpreted as a sign that the skilled hand of an experienced surgeon is still superior to the controlled and methodical maneuvers of a robot. To Google, however, this failure is being interpreted as the result of sub-standard surgical robots, and thus represents a business opportunity. Currently, the surgical robot market is worth $3.2 billion, with analysts forecasting staggering market growth over the next five years that will boost it to $20 billion. This forecasted market value combined with the lackluster performance of current surgical robots is apparently a compelling enough scenario to get Google’s attention. The company announced last week that it is expanding its partnership with Johnson & Johnson to form a stand-alone business that will design and sell surgical robots. The new business, called Verb Surgical, is setting the same ambitious goals that earlier robotics companies had focused on. The announcement states the company’s goals are “to enable better patient outcomes, improve access to minimally invasive surgery, and achieve greater hospital efficiency.” Time will tell if Google’s elite R&D team can make a difference in the surgical robots market.

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