In an operating room in rural Idaho, doctors prep a patient for surgery. They make a tiny, thumb-sized incision into the patient and insert a small robot while across the country a surgeon puts on a virtual reality headset, grabs their controllers and prepares to operate.
While this scene may seem like science fiction now, a Charlestown, Mass.-based startup called Vicarious Surgical is developing the technology to make that vision a reality.
The company’s co-founders, Adam Sachs and Sammy Khalifa, have been developing and refining the technology almost since they met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as undergraduates.
The 27-year-old Sachs said that he and Khalifa formally launched the company roughly five years ago when they graduated from MIT, and have been working on it ever since.
“We’ve been working on ways to miniaturize robotics and put all of the motion of surgery into the abdominal cavity,” says Sachs. “If you put all of the motion inside the abdominal cavity you are not confined to motion around the incision sites.”
What really set the founders’ brains buzzing was the potential for combining their miniature robots with the ability to see inside the body using virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift.
“It wasn’t a ‘Eureka!’ moment, but more like two-or-three weeks as the vision came together,” says Sachs. “We can make robotics more human-like and virtual reality would give you that presence in the body.”
The two founders initially bootstrapped their startup and then raised a small seed round, then began steadily closing larger tranches of a rolling round from luminaries like Bill Gates through his Gates Frontier fund, Khosla Ventures, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, AME Cloud Ventures (investment firm from Yahoo founder Jerry Yang), Singularity Holdings investor Neil Devani and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff.
In all, the company has raised some $31.8 million to support the development of its technology.
For Sachs and Khalifa, even though the technology was broadly applicable in areas that would yield faster results than healthcare, tackling the health market first was important, Sachs says.
“A lot of people pointed out that our technology has a lot of applications. [But] healthcare for all of the reasons that people talk about really is meaningful to us,” says Sachs. “I have the luxury of being able to work on a project that’s fascinating from a technology standpoint and meaningful from a social good aspect.”
Science and entrepreneurship runs in the Sachs family. Adam’s father, Ely Sachs, is a professor at MIT and one of the co-founders of the revolutionary 3D-printing company, Desktop Metal .
According to Sachs, a number of innovations in robotics has led the company to develop what Sachs calls tiny humanoid robots.
“Picture a very robotic version of two human arms and a human head,” says Sachs. “Two robotic arms that have the same degrees of freedom and proportions of a human arms and a camera that is placed above the shoulders of the robot… it’s a few inches across.”
Using the motorized robot a surgeon can remotely control the robot’s movements to operate on a patient. “They can be in another room or they can be hundreds of miles away (with an excellent internet connection,” says Sachs.
For surgeons using Vicarious’ technology, the primary feedback is virtual, Sachs says. They look through the “eyes” of the robot and can look down and see the robot’s arms. “We track the surgeon’s arm motion and mimics their arms and hands. The primary feedback is to create the impression of presence of the surgeon as if they’d been shrunk down.”
The mission of Vicarious Surgical’s founders and its investors is to drive down both the cost of higher impact surgeries and access to the best surgeons through remote technologies.
The market for medical robots is highly lucrative. Earlier today, Johnson & Johnson announced the $3.4 billion acquisition of Auris Health — a maker of robotic diagnostics and surgical tools. In all, estimates put the robotic surgery market at somewhere around $90 billion, according to a report from Allied Market Research.
“We like to invest in things that if they work they truly change the industry. Minimally invasive surgeries and surgical robotics is definitely the future and it’s just getting started,” says Dror Berman, a managing director with Innovation Endeavors.
“There were 900,000 surgeries done using surgical robotics out of a total of 313 million surgical procedures. It’s a low percentage and it’s very expensive to buy those… In general that’s not offered to the vast majority of patients. Vicarious is about democratizing that access… if it works it will open a huge market for people who can use much better procedures for much better surgeries,” Berman says.
“One of the problems with that is that smaller hospitals can’t afford these $2 million robots,” says Sachs. “By making the devices tiny and fitting the motion inside a patient we can expand access long-term and in smaller hospitals where a surgeon might be able to start a procedure.”
Later, as Vicarious is able to build up taxonomies of different surgical practices and methods, the hospitals could begin to automate more aspects of the procedures to the point where many of these surgeries may just be handled by the robot.
The company is currently testing its miniature robots in laboratories and would not comment on whether it was using animal subjects. Vicarious is also modeling the human abdomen and conducting as many virtual tests as possible.
The new funding, Sachs says, will take the company through its applications for the Food and Drug Administration.
“A lot of our long-term vision is about growing and scaling our technology to the point where it’s accessible not just to big cities and major hospitals in the U.S. and also the small cities and towns in the rural U.S. and around the world as well,” says Sachs. “Long-term it’s about the democratization of surgery that can come from surgical robotics.”[ + ]
It was a tough week. Journalists around the U.S. were hit hard by layoffs, from HuffPost to BuzzFeed News to Verizon Media Group, which owns this very site. The government entered day 35 of the shutdown before President Donald Trump agreed to a short-term deal to reopen it for three weeks. And in the startup world, a once high-flying, venture-subsidized food delivery startup crashed and burned, leaving a cluster of small businesses in its wreckage.
Some good things happened too — we’ll get to those.
In an email to customers on Monday, Munchery announced it would cease operations, effective immediately. It, however, failed to notify any of its vendors, small businesses in San Francisco that had supplied baked goods to the startup for years. I talked to several of those business owners about what they’re owed and what the sudden disappearance of Munchery means for them.
If you haven’t read John Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood,” stop reading this newsletter right now and go get yourself a copy. If you love to read, watch and listen to the Theranos saga as much as I do, you’ll be glad to hear there’s some fresh Theranos content released to the world this week. Called “The Dropout,” a new ABC documentary and an accompanying podcast about Theranos features never-before-aired depositions. Plus, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reviews the Theranos documentary, “The Inventor,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week.
Confluent, the developer of a streaming data technology that processes massive amounts of information in real time, announced a $125 million Series D round on an enormous $2.5 billion valuation (up 5x from its Series C valuation). The round was led by existing investor Sequoia Capital, with participation from other top-tier VCs Index Ventures and Benchmark.
Jonathan and Joshua Viner, the founders of the SoftBank-backed dog walking startup Wag, launched Wheels this week, an electric bike-share startup with a $37 million funding from Tenaya Capital, Bullpen Capital, Naval Ravikant and others.
Indonesia-headquartered Go-Jek has closed an initial chunk of what it hopes will be a $2 billion round after a collection of existing investors, including Google, Tencent and JD.com, agreed to put around $920 million toward it, according to TechCrunch’s Southeast Asia reporter Jon Russell. The deal, which we understand could be announced as soon as next week, will value Go-Jek’s business at around $9.5 billion.
There’s been a lot of chatter around direct listings since Spotify opted to go public via the untraditional route in 2018, but what exactly is a direct listing… We asked a panel of six experts: “What are the implications of direct listing tech IPOs for financial services, regulation, venture capital and capital markets activity?”
Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to email@example.com or @KateClarkTweets.
Through telemedicine and direct-to-consumer sales platforms, startups are streamlining the historically arduous process of accessing contraception. The latest effort to secure a significant financing round is The Pill Club, an online birth control prescription and delivery service. This week, the consumer-focused investor VMG Partners led its $51 million Series B.
Sunil Nagaraj spent years investing in startups at Bessemer Venture Partners, but he was itching to meet with younger companies and strike out on his own. So in the summer of 2017, he did, and now, Nagaraj said he’s closed Ubiquity Ventures’ debut fund with $30 million. March Capital Partners, the Los Angeles-based venture capital firm, raised $300 million for its latest fund. Plus, Zynga founder Mark Pincus is reportedly raising up to $700 million for a new investment fund, called Reinvent Capital, that will focus on publicly traded tech companies in need of strategic restructuring.
A mental health startup, a construction tech business and a fintech company, among others. Take a quick look at the startups that just completed Alchemist’s six-month accelerator program.
If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm, TechCrunch’s Silicon Valley editor Connie Loizos and I chatted about Munchery’s downfall, The Pill Club’s mission to make birth control more accessible and the VC slowdown in China.
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Wed, 23 Jan 2019 14:07:55 +0000
Startups Weekly: Is Munchery the Fyre Festival of startups?
Facebook has agreed to plough more resource into combating the use of its advertising platform by scammers, saying it will do more to tackle scam ads that use well-known public figures to try to trick consumers.
It plans to launch a dedicated scam ad report button in the UK, slated to go live in around three months’ time, as well as set up a specialist, locally-based team to monitor ad reports, keep an eye on scammer trends and generally work on getting celebrity-exploiting scam ads taken down more quickly than its current AI-aided ad review systems have been doing.
The new measures were announced in a joint press conference with UK consumer advice personality, Martin Lewis, who launched a defamation lawsuit against Facebook in April, saying the social network giant had failed to stop scammers using his image on scores of ads that aimed to swindle consumers, thereby damaging his reputation.
Some of the ads had tried to use Lewis’ image to promote crypto scams.
Lewis filed suit after becoming frustrated by the scale of scam ads bearing his image and Facebook’s tepid response to the problem its platform has created — telling the Guardian last year: “What is particularly pernicious about Facebook is that it says the onus is on me, so I have spent time and effort and stress repeatedly to have them taken down.”
He confirmed today that he’s dropped the lawsuit after Facebook agreed to make changes.
“There were over 1,000 on Facebook in a year. And the way that the company acted then wasn’t good enough, so I had to resort to [taking legal action],” he said during the press conference, adding that he had wanted to see “tangible real change to the number of scam ads on the platform”, so was happy to drop the lawsuit because he believes the new report button will do that.