Surgical Robotics and the Attack of the Patent Trolls

By Tim Sparapani

Even when they are terrifying, like in Terminator films, robots are cool. 

That’s especially true about the burgeoning field of surgical robotics. While we are not yet at the Empire Strikes Back moment when robots replace Luke Skywalker’s hand after Darth Vader sheers it off, we are getting close. These new surgical robots are creating a surge of intellectual property advancements and improving patient outcomes.Like Terminator or Darth Vader though, patent trolls and patent privateers threaten the surgical robotics industry’s vitality and growth.

Recently, Fox Business News’ Liz Claman tweeted she was obsessed with a company called Intuitive Surgical ISRG -0.71%.  Turns out she had good reason — the company that makes the da Vinci robotic surgery system has returned over 2700% to shareholders.  While Intuitive Surgical has been around for two decades, others are joining this innovation movement. For example, Johnson & Johnson JNJ -0.89% and Google GOOGL +2.82% recently announced they are partnering to jump into the robotic surgery market, while smaller companies like North Carolina’s TransEnterix just filed an application with the FDA for approval of their lower-end surgical robot.

The growth of this market is astounding. A recent report by WinterGreen pegged the surgical robot device market at $3.2 billion in 2014 and predicts that figure will reach $20 billion by 2021 as next generation devices, systems, and instruments are introduced.  Intuitive Surgical’s systems alone were used in over 570,000 procedures last year and the company’s annual report says that more than 2.5 million robotically-assisted procedures have been done worldwide to-date.


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