Team provides business savvy to man's idea for surgical robotics

| Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Howie Choset always wanted to start a company.

Choset, 42, a Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of robotics, said he had a good idea for a medical device and, by 2003, figured out how to make it work. What he didn't realize was how much help he would need to create a successful company.

"This is something that I just couldn't have done myself," Choset said. "It had to be this ensemble of people to go from concept to reality."

The company Choset co-founded, Medrobotics Inc., is poised to bring a minimally invasive surgical robot to market. Company officials say it could become a game-changer because it is flexible but can become rigid to manipulate tools, unlike other robotic surgery devices on the market.

"I saw this as unlocking this whole leap in minimally invasive surgery," said James Jordan, chief investment officer of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, which runs programs to help entrepreneurs and researchers start companies.

Jordan, a member of the Medrobotics board of directors, guided Choset and co-founders Marco Zenati and Alon Wolf during the company's early years, starting in 2005.

Until this month, they called their company Cardiorobotics, but officials changed the name to reflect a new marketing strategy, Jordan said. Once focused on a robot that could perform heart surgery, Medrobotics will target throat surgery applications, he said.

Choset serves as acting chief technology officer for Medrobotics but is not active in the company's day-to-day operations. Zenati, who was affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine when he began working with Choset, became a medical professor at Harvard. And Wolf, a postdoctoral researcher with Choset at CMU, now is a professor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel.

It wasn't easy to relinquish control of Medrobotics to people with more business experience, said Choset, who describes his position as a technical adviser.

"I had to let it go, and I had to let these people come in and do the work" of creating the company, he said.

That work included raising money from investors, developing a business plan and perfecting prototypes, Jordan said.

Medrobotics collected about $30 million from investors and expects to market its first commercially available surgical robot by the end of 2012, Jordan said.

To get there, the company will need to raise additional capital, probably another $30 million, said Samuel Straface, CEO of Medrobotics since 2009.

Much of the investment so far came from individuals in Pittsburgh, with whom the company connected through Eagle Ventures, a Pittsburgh venture capital firm run by Mel Pirchesky, Straface said.

"We've had access to capital from a lot of wealthy people from Pittsburgh," Straface said. That was a key factor, considering the recession that started in 2008. Venture capital firms, which provide money for startup companies around the country, pulled back and have been waiting longer for companies to develop before investing.

Yet, individual investors, or "angels," can go only so far. Straface intends to approach venture capitalists for the next $30 million.

"We do need that big-pocket support," he said. "You don't want to be running out of money halfway through commercializing a product."

Much of the company's 25-member staff is located in the Boston area, where Straface said it's easier to find experienced robotic engineers, but Medrobotics expects to open a sales-and-marketing office in Pittsburgh next year.

When Medrobotics introduces its product, it will enter a growing market for minimally invasive surgery -- with few competitors.

Proponents say minimally invasive surgery lessens the chance for surgical complications and allows patients to recover faster. Both of those factors can reduce costs, company officials said. Minimally invasive surgery enables surgeons to access organs through small holes, rather than large incisions that can more easily become infected.

The global market for minimally invasive devices and instruments is predicted to reach $23 billion in 2014, according to Wellesley, Mass.-based market research company BCC Research.

One of the largest surgical robotic companies in the United States is Intuitive Surgical Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., maker of the da Vinci Surgical System. Intuitive posted revenue last year of $1.4 billion.

Medrobotics stands out because its surgical robot is flexible, but can hold a shape and can move easily inside a patient's body, Jordan said. Intuitive's system uses straight, inflexible tools.

"This is the next leap," Jordan said of Medrobotics' technology.

Additional Information:

Medrobotics Inc.

What : A medical device company that's developing a minimally invasive surgical robot

Where : Pittsburgh, and Raynham, Mass.

Founded : 2005, by Howie Choset, Marco Zenati and Alon Wolf

Employees : 25

Investor funding to date: $30 million

CEO : Samuel Straface, since 2009

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