By AMANDA CICCATELLI – August 23, 2016
Patents are essential to encouraging innovation, but can also limit competition. Intuitive Surgical has dominated the global robotic surgery market (which is expected to hit $11.4 billion by 2020) since the FDA approved its Da Vinci surgical system 16 years ago; today, the machine is used in more than 200,000 operations annually. But many of Intuitive Surgical’s patents begin to expire this year, clearing the way for new technologies to enter the marketplace.
Newcomers include TransEnterix, which is working to commercialize the ALF-X robot, designed to perform minimally invasive surgeries and expected to enter the market in 2017. Google’s Verily, meanwhile, has partnered with Johnson & Johnson to form Verb Surgical, a robotic surgery and medical device that aims to go beyond robotics to what CEO Scott Huennekens calls “digital surgery” — incorporating advanced visualization, instrumentation and analytics.
The patent system has allowed innovators in the robotic surgery space the ability to protect their innovations while excluding others from practicing the innovations covered by their patents, and in turn, providing barriers to entry into the market for potential competitors. “This is particularly important given that robotic surgical systems are very complex systems that take years to develop, in addition to having to go through an FDA approval process before they can be used in the U.S.,” he explained.
The main player in the robotic surgery space has been Intuitive Surgical, which a search of the public USPTO assignment database indicates has 649 U.S. patents. According to Villalta, however, this number does not capture patents that Intuitive Surgical may have rights to, so the number of patents Intuitive Surgical may have that cover its technology may be much higher.