Google Inc. is joining forces with Johnson & Johnson to develop a robotic-assisted surgical program, moving into a growing field of medicine as the search-engine giant expands its health-care investments.
The companies will explore ways to add advanced imaging and sensors to surgical tools, helping doctors during operations. The partnership is through the life-sciences division of Google X labs, the company’s research unit that has funded projects such as self-driving cars.
“We look forward to exploring how smart software could help give surgeons the information they need at just the right time during an operation,” Andy Conrad, head of the life sciences team at Google, said in a statement Friday. Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.
The partnership will help J&J, the world’s largest maker of health-care products, build upon the prototype it’s already developed for the core of a new robotic surgical system.
“We knew that we needed a partner with a different skill set,” Gary Pruden, worldwide chairman of the global surgery group at New Brunswick, New Jersey-based J&J, said in a telephone interview. “We’re early in the partnership with Google life sciences. I would certainly say we have a multigenerational plan for the development for a fully capable product to bring to the market.”
He said the plan is to build a “radically” different product that’s more flexible and more cost-effective than what’s currently available.
Robotic surgeries have been growing in popularity, and the pact will help J&J better compete against companies like Intuitive Surgical Inc., a major participant in the industry. Still, such procedures aren’t without risks. A 2013 complaint by the Colorado Medical Board alleged patients suffered injuries or complications from robotic surgeries including punctured or torn arteries.
Intuitive said procedures grew at a rate of 9 percent in 2014 and that it expects the pace to be 7 percent to 10 percent in 2015. The company’s system is used for a range of surgeries including colorectal surgery and hernia repair.
It will probably be a few years before a competing product enters the market to upend Intuitive’s leadership position, since any new contender would have to go through regulatory scrutiny, said Vijay Kumar, an analyst at Evercore ISI.
Still, he expects other companies to move into the arena of health-care robotics.
“If you look over the last 10 years, robotics has been one of the fastest growth areas,” said the analyst, who advises buying Intuitive shares. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the field attracts a lot of nontraditional players.”