JustRight Surgical inks deal with Intuitive Surgical, intensifying patent race

A showdown is looming in the rapidly expanding market for surgical robots

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A Colorado medical device startup that makes tools for laparoscopic surgery has reached an exclusive licensing deal with Intuitive Surgical, maker of the da Vinci robot.

Currently, JustRight Surgical's devices, including its flagship vessel fusing system, are used in pediatric surgery. Under the new licensing agreement, the company is hoping to expand its reach into adult populations while piggybacking on the growing popularity of robotic surgery.

"We are excited to team up with Intuitive Surgical to expand the impact of JustRight Surgical's technology beyond pediatric patients," said Robert Kline, CEO of JustRight Surgical. "Our [technology] will now have the potential to improve safety and outcomes for adult-sized patients undergoing robotic surgery."

The licensing announcement comes days after another surgical robotics company, Auris Surgical, announced it closed on more than a quarter-billion dollars of new funding.

Auris is focusing on lung and esophageal surgery for now, but its flexible technology has broader applications in minimally invasive surgery. Intuitive's new licensing agreement seems to signal that the companies are on a collision course.

That makes for some industry intrigue. Auris was founded by Fred Moll, an Intuitive cofounder. Though the company doesn't have a product to market yet, its recent funding -- which brings total funding to half-a-billion dollars -- has raised the buzz about Moll's newest endeavor to a fever pitch.

The game for both companies right now is patent acquisition and exclusive licensing. Intuitive Surgical figured that out back in 2003 when it ended a longstanding patent dispute with rival Computer Motion by initiating a merger with that company and absorbing its intellectual property.

Ever since, Intuitive has aggressively acquired patents through purchase or licensing, blocking or tying up smaller rivals with patent infringement litigation.

Moll knows that game. In 2016, Auris purchased Hansen Medical, a vaunted developer of surgical robots that hasn't performed as well as expected. The move left Auris with a number of important patents, including several related to minimally invasive tools to manipulate catheters.

Auris's efforts and Intuitive's deal with JustRight are part of a larger trend in surgery toward minimally invasive procedures, which surgical robots excel at. The global laparoscopic instruments market is projected to reach USD 11.68 Billion by 2021, growing at a CAGR of 8.9 percent from 2016 to 2021, according to a Markets and Markets industry report.

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