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This start-up is making remote-controlled robots that can do surgery in space

  • Virtual Incision is developing portable, miniaturized robots that can perform abdominal surgeries.
  • Sinopharm Capital and Bluestem are among investors pouring $18 million into Virtual Incision.

Virtual Incision is developing remotely operated robots that are small enough to perform abdominal surgeries in challenging locations, whether that's in a field hospital or aboard the International Space Station.

The company, headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska, with offices in Pleasanton, California, has already tested its robots on NASA's "vomit comit," a plane that flies in parabolas to create weightlessness, and in a NASA mission that put astronauts in an underwater habitat to simulate the remoteness of space.

The robots have yet to fly with the International Space Station, but the start-up is hoping to land its technology there in the future, and perhaps even on missions to the moon and Mars.

According to Chief of Technology and co-founder Shane Farritor, Virtual Incision's robots are like laptops compared to the mainframe-sized devices out on the market today, namely Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci Surgical System.

Virtual Incision's "robotically assisted surgical device," or RASD, is only about as big as a person's fist. It weighs just two pounds, and is made of materials that are safe for use inside the body. By contrast, other robots used to perform surgeries weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds and aren't portable.

Rather than featuring arms that reach all around a patient, Virtual Incision's robot goes into the body through a small incision along the navel, and maneuvers within using miniaturized tools, including a tiny laparoscope, graspers and scissors.

Farritor said, "This robot is strong, but small and easy to position inside the body. In general surgery abdominal procedures, the patient's abdomen is pumped full of CO2 and you'd traditionally have numerous cuts made through your muscle, lining and stomach wall to do something like a colon re-section. With this, a surgeon can get 360-degree access to the abdomen and work on the large organs through a single incision."

Patients who undergo surgeries with this should have much faster recovery times as a result, Murphy said.

Big investors are betting on Virtual Incision's approach to surgical robotics, which is to make them safe and effective but also small, affordable and portable.

An investment arm of the China-based healthcare company Sinopharm, and Bluestem Capital are among the investors in a new, $18 million Series B round of funding, CNBC has learned.

Murphy said that the capital will go towards putting Virtual Incision's robots through FDA clearances, then ramping up manufacturing and conducting additional clinical studies.