NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Johnson & Johnson Innovation Innovation last week said it is acquiring the remaining stake in Verb Surgical Inc. from Verily Life Sciences, a unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc. The companies had collaborated on robotics for assisting surgeons since 2015. Terms were not disclosed.

Verb Surgical demonstrated a surgical robot prototype in late 2016, and in 2017, the partners said their program to develop smaller, more intelligent, and more affordable systems was “on track.”

“Verb Surgical’s world-class robotics and data science capabilities, combined with Johnson & Johnson’s health care leadership and global reach, advance the company’s vision to make medical interventions smarter, less invasive, and more personalized,” said Johnson & Johnson (J&J).

The company added that its products are used in 75 million procedures worldwide each year. Its DePuy Synthes unit is developing the VELYS Digital Surgery platform for patient engagement, surgical planning and implementation, and post-operative monitoring.

Johnson & Johnson grafts on surgical robotics companies

In a challenge to surgical robotics leader Intuitive Surgical Inc. and others, Johnson & Johnson has been acquiring companies with the stated intent “to bring its unique insights and experience in science, medical technology, and digital solutions to medical interventions, including open surgery, laparoscopic, percutaneous, and endoluminal procedures.”

Last year, J&J acquired France-based Orthotaxy, which has been working on robotics for total and partial knee replacements.

In February 2019, J&J’s Ethicon subsidiary spent $3.4 billion to acquire Auris Health Inc., whose Monarch platform for bronchoscopic procedures has received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Surgical robotics pioneer Dr. Frederic Moll co-founded Auris.

“The ability to shape the future of medical interventions with the largest health care organization in the world is what inspired me when Johnson & Johnson acquired Auris Health,” said Moll, who is now chief development officer, J&J medical devices companies. “With Verb Surgical’s talent and technology, we will strengthen our portfolio and our ability to deliver our digital ecosystem to make a clinical difference for patients.”

The Auris acquisition was one of The Robot Report‘s biggest transactions and top 10 stories from the first half of 2019. Not only have surgical robotics companies been among the biggest recipients of venture capital this year, but they were also a major topic of discussion at the recent Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum.

Auris Health Monarch

The Monarch robotic surgical platform has received FDA approval. Source: Auris Health

Verb Surgical milestone

Executives at both J&J and Verily claimed that the buyout, which is expected to close next year, represents progress in Verb Surgical’s development.

“We have reached this important milestone, thanks to the progress the Verb Surgical team has made with their digital surgery platform and the strong collaboration with Verily, Ethicon, and the clinicians around the world who shared their passion, deep insights, and clinical expertise,” said Ashley McEvoy, worldwide chairman of medical devices at J&J.

“With Verb Surgical, we set out with an ambitious mission to successfully harmonize the talent and expertise of two pioneers to design a platform with the potential to transform surgery,” said Andrew Conrad, CEO of Verily. “This evolution in the collaboration recognizes the significant achievement toward that mission, and I’m excited for the future of this technology in Johnson & Johnson’s hands.”

Johnson & Johnson buys out Verily stake in Verb Surgical

Verb Surgical was founded in 2015. Source: Johnson & Johnson

Stiff competition in orthopedic surgical robots

Despite the high prices for surgical robots and relatively low sales volumes, industry analysts expect steady growth in demand and investment in the coming years, especially as the technology addresses more types of procedures.

The global market for orthopedic surgical robots will experience a compound annual growth rate of nearly 13% between 2019 and 2029, reaching $4.1 billion, predicts Persistence Market Research. The market for hip and knee replacement robotics will grow from $84 million in 2015 to $4.6 billion in 2022, according to Industry Research Co.

Scott Huennekens, former president and CEO of Verb Surgical, this month joined Vicarious Surgical Inc.’s board of directors. The company is applying virtual reality and robotics to minimally invasive surgery. Verb Surgical named Kurt Azarbarzin as its president and CEO in July.

Other companies developing robots for orthopedic surgery include Stryker, Medtronic, Zimmer Biomet, Smith & Nephew, Globus Medical, Think Surgical, and NuVasive.

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