February 23, 2012      

Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. last week opened a lab dedicated to building surgical robots within the Asian Institute for Life Sciences, the Korea Herald reported. The company already ranks fifth globally in medical robotics, with a 9 percent market share, according to the newspaper. Two other Asian manufacturing giants Hitachi and Toshiba are among its competitors. However, aside from Intuitive Surgical, the industry is still very much categorized by smaller players that have arisen from universities.

For example, last November, we reported on Dutch researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology who were working on a robot capable of performing complicated eye surgery. Their competitors include a team from the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS) in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, which revealed it was developing a robotic system capable of delivering tiny payloads to parts of the eye.

In the United States, researchers at the Computer Integrated Interventional Systems Laboratory at John Hopkins University in Baltimore are working on Eye Robot 2 (ER2) and a robotic assistant designed for retinal microsurgery.

Notwithstanding, the dominant player in robotic surgery remains Intuitive Surgical. Thanks to its large installed base of da Vinci Surgical Systems, it will likely remain the standard for the foreseeable future. Doctors trained on one device would be highly reluctant to switch to a competitor. Meanwhile, the company has successfully added to the number of approved procedures its system is able to perform.

If there is a platform capable of meaningfully competing with da Vinci, it could be the open source robotic surgery platform developed at UC Santa Cruz and the University of Washington. As we mentioned in January, systems were being sent out to Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Nebraska, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, so researchers can collaboratively study how they might best be used.