Forget most of the predictable predictions and facile forecasts for healthtech in 2018—whether it’s blockchain, AI (particularly applied to diagnosis), IoT (and its serious vulnerability to hacking), mobile devices, and EHRs (synergized lately by use of analytics). The announced Amazon-Berkshire Hathaway-JP Morgan partnership to revolutionize pharmaceutical access—“free from profit-making incentives and constraints”—certainly sounds historic, but almost no details have been offered yet as to just what that may look like.
To us at tekMountain, one of the most exciting and destabilizing trends in healthcare is the coming, ever-growing boom in robotics. We’re not talking about robotic pet therapy (which really is a thing). We’re talking about medical robotics. And while robotics is an atypical subject for tekMountain to explore, it’s deeply interesting and models how tech innovation revolutionizes a space while opening new horizons for investment and expanding our notions of the possible.
An ecosystem of robots
Robotics were introduced into medicine in practical terms in 1985 when the PUMA 560 robotic surgical arm was used to perform a very precise non-laparoscopic procedure. This served as the prototype for Neuromate, which received FDA approval in 1999. Now, the acceleration of robotics in medicine may be seen everywhere. Whether it’s the hallway-roaming RP-VITA from Massachusetts-based iRobot, or the Aethon TUG, robots are employed in a vast range of medical settings. And they are seldom as anthropomorphic as ASIMO (which has made amazing strides recently). Sometimes robots look like the tiny, unnamed “wormy” critter being developed by Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems that may soon go to work within the human body, for example, delivering medication to specific internal targets.
The da Vinci® Surgical System, made by Intuitive Surgical, is a teleoperated robot-assisted system that has been in regular use since 2000 and is probably the most widely known medical robot (seen here peeling a grape with great dexterity). Systems like daVinci are not autonomous and rely on surgeon’s or technician’s own skill. But robotic autonomy isn’t far off.
Medical robotics generally falls into two categories: “Ones that replace a job previously handled by an employee, such as packaging drugs or delivering lab results, and telemedicine-based technologies that connect clinicians and patients in ways that previously didn’t exist” (Modern Healthcare).
An example of the former appeared when GE Research in 2013 partnered w Veterans Affairs Dept to develop robotic system for building and validating sterile surgical kits. But the categories are extended further by technologies like Zora Bots. Developed in Belgium, Zora Bots is the first “social robot” widely in use for children and the elderly. Such robots hold great promise for therapy for children with autism.
The Canadian-American robotics company Bionik Laboratories is integrating Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant and Echo with its own robotic exoskeleton, the Arke, to help people with spinal or lower-body injuries be more mobile at home. As of last summer, the Arke is not yet cleared for clinical use.
Kinova Robotics, a Canadian firm specializing in assistive robotics, strives to “empower people living with upper-body mobility impairments to have freedom of movement,” while accelerating research and helping healthcare professionals to provide better outcomes for their patients. They are part of a widening trend: The market for assistive-care robotics is expected to grow at an impressive compound annual growth rate of 36 percent between 2017 and 2021, generating nearly $4.5 billion by then.
The coming boom
In the U.S. investment and retooling in robotics right now is a mere boomlet compared to the boom taking place in Japan and China, which account for 69 percent of all robot spending, according to the Financial Times. “After growing at a compound rate of 17 per cent a year,” FT reports, “the robot market [overall] will be worth $135bn by 2019, according to IDC, a tech research firm.” It’s a “robot revolution” that’s very different from familiar sci-fi dystopias.
“The robot market will be
worth $135bn by 2019.”
It’s a boom that could send vibrations throughout the U.S. economy. FT goes on to say, “In another sign of the expected boom, venture capital investments more than doubled last year to $587M, according to research firm CB Insights.”
The Medical Futurist believes that the sustainability of the healthcare system may depend on automation powered by digital health technologies. “The global medical robotic systems market was worth $5.48 billion in 2011,” according to TMF, “and is expected to reach $13.6 billion in 2018, growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 12.6% from 2012. Surgical robots are expected to enjoy the largest revenue share.”
TMF offers a dazzling list of the top healthcare companies in robotics, broken down into functional categories: surgical, pharma, exoskeletons, hygiene, telepresence, and robotic companions.
Benefits to healthcare
- Increased efficiency & throughput.
- Increased accuracy & safety and, therefore, improved clinical quality overall.
- Enhanced marketing resulting from a more favorable public image.
- Likelihood of spurring additional innovation such a computer vision. Some medical robotics (e.g., iRobot) are spin-offs of military innovations.
- Cost reduction. Bank of America Merrill Lynch anticipates US$8 trillion to US$9 trillion of cost reductions across manufacturing and healthcare, with healthcare likely the biggest beneficiary (The Edge Singapore, 1 Aug 2016, “Robots are ready for prime time”).
Other key drivers of cost reduction in medical robotics include computer-assisted surgery, telehealth, AI in healthcare, CareBots and bionics. “Computer-assisted surgery has been around for some years but, with big data, surgery by robots will move to a new level. As many as 570,000 robo-surgery procedures were performed in 2014 versus just 1,000 16 years ago. […] Bank of America Merrill Lynch projects that the global market for medical robotics and computer-assisted surgical equipment will reach US$18 billion by 2022, driven by an increasing demand for robotic surgeries and ageing demographics. An estimated 7,800 medical robots will be sold over the next four years compared with 1,224 in 2014” (The Edge Singapore).
tekMountain, a foremost tech innovator, is all about heralding innovation in healthcare. We synergize the efforts of entrepreneurs and investors to pioneer the frontiers of tech innovation. Expand your notions of the possible: Join us in the adventure.