September 29, 2015      

At the junction of biotech and robotics, the market for healthcare automation is growing fast, as several recent acquisitions and investments demonstrate. While insurance costs remain a concern in the U.S., investors are betting millions of dollars on medical robots.

The global medical automation technologies market was about $48.4 billion in 2014 and is expected to nearly double to $95.2 billion by 2022, according to one report. Radiant Insights Inc. predicts it will grow to $89 billion by 2020, as pharmacies and surgeons take advantage of automation.

In ‘stealth mode,’ Auris eyes financing

Auris Surgical Robotics Inc. has raised $150 million in financing, but a representative told MedCity News that it is “deep in stealth mode and will not comment about the funding or how it will be used.”

San Carlos, Calif.-based Auris was founded in 2011 by CEO Frederic Moll, who also co-founded Hansen Medical Inc., Intuitive Surgical Inc., Mako Surgical Inc., Origin Medsystems Inc., and Restoration Robotics Inc.

The company has been working with Irvine, Calif.-based Biolase Inc. to develop a micosurgical robot for removing cataracts. There has been no word yet on whether the system has passed from the feasibility and prototyping phase.

Last year, Auris had a Series A financing round that obtained $34 million from investors including Highland Capital Partners, Lux Capital, and Mithril Capital Management. Peter Thiel from Mithril Capital Management sits on Auris’ board of directors.

TransEnterix grabs Italian surgical robot division

TransEnterix Inc. has acquired the surgical robotics division of Italy-based SOFAR S.p.A. for $99.8 million in cash and stock. Both companies have been developing robotics for minimally invasive surgery.

“The combination of SurgiBot and ALF-X will allow TransEnterix to address a larger market opportunity with compelling patient, surgeon, and hospital value,” said Todd M. Pope, president and CEO of TransEnterix. “We believe this combination accelerates our commercialization timeline and revenue ramp as we can immediately begin selling the ALF-X in many markets globally.”

TransEnterix hopes to move to commercialization soon. The Morrisville, N.C.-based company has spent $155 million in research and development so far, according to the Triangle Business Journal. SurgiBot is awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The acquisition should enable TransEnterix to build on laparoscopic experience as the market for robotically assisted procedures grows. The SurgiBot and TELELAP ALF-X systems are expected to refine surgeons’ ability to view and feel what they’re doing over current technologies.

Improvements include haptic feedback, eye-tracking control of 3D camera, and wristed instruments.

In addition, TransEnterix said its Italian division will help it reduce costs to “make robotic surgery a possibility for many more hospitals around the world.”

About 6 million laparoscopic surgeries are performed each year in the U.S. and the EU, but only 570,000 were robotically assisted last year.

“However, product adoption is expected to take considerable time, owing to intensifying competition, reimbursement problems, slowing U.S. economic growth, and financial headwinds in Europe,” wrote Zacks analyst Aniruddha Ganguly.

Israeli startup raises funds for needle-steering tech

XACT Robotics Ltd., which is also developing robotic technology for minimally invasive procedures, raised $5 million in funding led by MEDX Ventures Group. The Israel Institute of Technology, or Technion, originally developed the robotic system for needle steering to be used for biopsies, ablations, and medication injections.

Caesarea, Israel-based XACT plans to use the CT-scan-based needle-steering system for biopsies in lung tissue.

“Today, a doctor decides based on a simulated picture how to insert the needle and then manually makes the puncture in a procedure that has high failure rates — with some half of procedures failing,” said MEDX founder Harel Gadot. “Even in systems that make use of robotic steering, the robot still bases its calculations on an existing simulated picture when positioning the needle, but the doctor is the one left making the puncture.”

“We realized we needed to be a hardware company and not just a software firm, because the technology can’t simply work with a robot you buy off the shelf; it requires a specialized robot that we design ourselves,” Gadot said, referring to XACT. “We also understood that the simulated image needed to be in 3D, because the world of robotics has moved on from two dimensions.”

The company will be conducting joint trials with U.S. institutes, first with animal trials and later on humans.

Barrett wins Massachusetts grants

Barret Technology Inc. won two state grants worth a total of $300,000 for its Proficio robotic arm and Puck, the motion controller for Proficio and other Barret products.

Proficio is designed to use force modulation to provide “engaging therapy for victims of stroke and other neurological disorders,” according to Newton, Mass.-based Barret.

The Massachusetts Life Science Center granted $200,000 to Barret for its work with Kista, Sweden-based SenseGraphics AB on developing software to allow users to feel 3D objects in the context of an engaging game using Proficio.

Venture-capital organization MassVentures gave $100,000 for commercialization of Puck, which Barret described as “an ultraminiature high-performance motion controller that is key to the success of Proficio and all other Barret robots, such as the WAM Arm and BarretHand.”

The biotech sector has bipartisan support in Massachusetts. “Barrett Technology is not only creating jobs in Newton and strengthening the local economy, but [also] bringing products to market that will help revolutionize the global health care industry,” said Democtratic Congressman Joe Kennedy.

“As the global leader in life sciences, Massachusetts has a unique ability to collaborate with companies in other parts of the world to improve health care through innovation,” said Republican Governor Charlie Baker. “I’m excited to see the results and the impact of these international partnerships.”

Mazor demoes live surgery

Mazor Robotics Ltd., which raised $1.19 million in stock earlier this month, is planning a live surgical demonstration this week at the Congress of Neurological Surgeons in New Orleans. Its CEO will also conduct a webcast at the Ladenburg Thalmann Healthcare Conference in New York.

“The Mazor Robotics Renaissance system gives me the ability to perform minimally invasive procedures for my patients, while providing high accuracy with minimal radiation exposure,” said Hunaldo Villalobos, who will perform the spinal operation. “I am excited to share this technology with fellow neurosurgeons to help advance this technique in spine surgery.”

Caesarea, Israel-based Mazor recently hired Anat Kaphan as a vice president of marketing and product management. It had previously hired Chad Zaring as vice president of national accounts and strategic alliances. Zaring previously worked at Intuitive Surgical, among other companies.

“Mazor is an innovative company, and our objective is to continually deliver product enhancements,” said Ori Haadomi, Mazor CEO. “Anat will ensure that we are proactively addressing the market’s evolving needs and maintaining a high level of surgeon satisfaction.”

Prescription robot acquisitions

This past spring, Omnicell Inc. bought Bochum, Germany-based MACH4 Pharma Systems for an undislosed amount. Omnicell is a medication and supply management systems provider in Mountain View, Calif.

MACH4’s automated dispensary systems are installed in a base of more than 1,000 retail and hospital pharmacies in Europe, China, and the Middle East.

In 2012, Omnicell bought MTS Medication Technologies for $156 million. MTS is working on a $1 million pharmacy robot to package multi-dose daily pills.