Tech Transformers

A start-up making a robot to carry out keyhole surgery raises $20 million


A start-up creating robots to assist surgeons in carrying out keyhole surgery has raised $20.3 million, backed by European automation giant ABB.

Keyhole surgery is process in which a camera is inserted into the body allowing the surgeon to operate by only making a tiny incision rather than a large opening. It is often seen as a quicker and safer way of carrying out certain types of surgery.

But the process requires highly experienced surgeons which can often be in short supply.

Attempting to solve this problem, Cambridge Medical Robotics (CMR) is in the process of developing the machine which will have arms controlled by a surgeon. A robotic surgeon would mean a doctor would not have to train as long to carry out keyhole surgery and could operate the robot to do the operation instead.

An image showing part of CMR's robot in action.

"Today 12 million people in the world should receive minimal access surgery but only half do and that's because keyhole surgery is hard to perform and takes time to learn to become an excellent keyhole surgeon," Martin Frost, chief executive of CMR, told CNBC in a phone interview on Monday.

"The robots that exist today are very expensive and they only adapt themselves well to procedures to the pelvic area of the body. We are building a system that will help the surgeon do the vast majority of procedures using minimal access techniques but using the robot to do it."

'Modular arms'

CMR has a working prototype but is hesitant to discuss details because of the competitive nature of the medical equipment industry.

Frost described the system as having a number of lightweight "modular arms" which would have a greater range of movement than a human arm. Attached to the end of the robot arm is an instrument that will go into a human body.

The robot will be controlled by a surgeon, however. Frost could not give away how, but described it as having traits similar to video game controllers.

"It's not a joystick but it incorporates much of the ergonomic technology that has come out of video gaming technology. You are looking at surgical hand grips, and different controls and buttons on the hand grip which allow the surgeon to move around the different robotic arms and camera," Frost told CNBC.

The $20.3 million funding round came from ABB Technology Ventures, the venture capital arm of European automation giant ABB, LGT Global invest and Cambridge Innovation Capital. CMR was founded in 2014 and is headquartered in Cambridge, a large technology hub in the U.K. where ARM – which was acquired by Softbank on Monday – also resides.

CMR will be unveiling the full system over the next 12 months and is currently doing trials on cadavers. It is also applying for regulatory approval from European Union and U.S. medical authorities.

"We won't have the commercial product in the market in 2017, but we do expect to be in the market shortly thereafter," Frost said.

Remote surgery

The chief executive explained that this robot would be able to allow more surgeons to carry out keyhole surgery as well as reduce the cost of these types of operations. Frost claims that current medical robotics solution adds around $3,000 per keyhole procedure. His aim is for CMR's technology to reduce this premium.

And looking into the distant future, CMR's technology could be used to carry out operations even if the surgeon is thousands of miles away in another country, though limitations still remain on this at the moment.

"I think in the end, that is where the world is going. The limitation at the moment is bandwidth and the speed of light because if the surgeon is not next to the patient, there is an awful lot of data going from surgeon console to robot and back again so the surgeon knows where instruments are. That requires and awful lot of data moving up and down fiber optic cable. But I think in our lifetime, we will see that," Frost told CNBC.