Nebraska’s homespun mini surgical robot company inspires support
Virtual Incision Corporation (VIC), founded on the collaborative efforts of two professors in the University of Nebraska ecosystem, has once again secured additional funding for its in vivo surgical robotics platform. On July 3, the company closed $1M in debt financing from Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based investment firms Bluestem Capital Company and Prairie Gold Venture…
Virtual Incision Corporation (VIC), founded on the collaborative efforts of two professors in the University of Nebraska ecosystem, has once again secured additional funding for its in vivo surgical robotics platform.
On July 3, the company closed $1M in debt financing from Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based investment firms Bluestem Capital Company and Prairie Gold Venture Partners. Both funding entities have previously backed VIC in prior rounds of financing.
This $1M note is part of a much larger Series B+ capital raise which will add $10M+ to the company’s Series B financing of $18M last year. To date, VIC has raised between $30-40M in support.
In 2006, Shane Farritor, PhD, current Chief Technology Officer at VIC and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) engineering professor, and Dmitry Oleynikov, MD, Current Chief Medical Officer at VIC and University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) professor of surgery, formed this University of Nebraska medical device spinoff to address the growing demand of colorectal and lower gastrointestinal procedures in the United States, with a particular focus on the needs of hospitals in the rural regions of the country, such as Nebraska.
These two founders bring considerable professional experience to the company. Dr. Farritor is an MIT trained mechanical engineer who has conducted research in robotics for NASA and the US Army. These days he spends most of his time working with the employees at the company’s R&D and manufacturing facility on Lincoln’s Nebraska Innovation Campus. In addition to running a busy clinical practice, Dr. Oleynikov is also the director of UNMC’s Center for Advanced Surgical Technology and a board member of the Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons.
Their executive team expanded in 2012, when John Murphy, MBA, a global medical technology and health services executive with a background in computer science and extensive connections in Silicon Valley, joined VIC to become its CEO.
“John has been a wonderful leader for our company,” acknowledged Dr. Oleynikov.
In the wake of the successful introduction in 2000, of the da Vinci robotic surgical system which was the first of its kind approved by the FDA for laparoscopic gynecological, urological and thoracic procedures, Dr. Oleynikov sought to develop a more cost-effective robotic solution that would similarly assist surgeons with abdominal surgery.
Laparoscopic surgery is a minimally invasive technique in which the surgeon only needs to make very small keyhole-sized incisions in the body to access the internal tissue to be operated on. A laparoscope – long, thin telescope with a light source and camera – as well as long, thin cylindrical rods with various small specialized surgical instruments at the end, can be inserted through the incisions for the procedure. The surgeons can view their actions in the body over a video console. This approach is associated with reduced hospitalization, as compared to open surgery that requires large incisions, shorter recovery times and less postoperative issues, thus a more favorable health outcome for the patient.
“When I met Dr. Shane Farritor in 2001 at a UNMC event encouraging engineers and docs to come up with good ideas, we came to a common understanding that technology would enable us to do what couldn’t be done with long unwieldy pliers,” explained Dr. Oleynikov, referring to the limits of the laparoscopic approach. “To keep operation incisions small, to perform surgery with greater ease and accuracy we needed a better set of tools, robotically enabled tools, so we drew up robot solutions.”
According to Dr. Oleynikov, this initiative began as a research collaboration between the two university campuses whose commercial importance was ultimately realized. Patents were pursued and Virtual Incision was launched.
The company has since developed miniaturized surgical devices to robotically assist surgeons in general surgery procedures involving the abdomen, such as colon resection. VIC’s two-pound robotically-assisted surgical device (RASD) for colon resection, equipped with an integrated Full HD robotic flex-tip camera, is designed to be inserted through a small incision in the navel as a minimally invasive alternative to the 8-12-inch incision typically required for this procedure.
A control console serves as the interface between the surgeon and each device. Moreover, the robot is surveyed using an artificial intelligence platform that provides insight on instrument orientation, positioning and specific usage – important feedback to further guide surgical applications. The data also drives the development of improvements for the device. There have already been approximately 70 versions of the colon-resection RASD.
“We are making sure we have a robust manufacturing pathway to developing these reliable, easily sterilized integrated robots at our facility in Lincoln. Though we are still engaged in much research and development, our current focus is on optimizing the system,” declared Dr. Oleynikov.
To date, VIC has over 180 patents and applications, over 50 robot prototypes and over 80 comparative medical studies on their devices. The company aims to design and develop additional specialized surgical robots capable of performing specific procedures, such as RASDs for hernia and gall bladder surgeries.
Dr. Farritor has stated in a prior press release, “You should never use a crescent wrench because it’s never the right tool. It can do a lot of things, but you should have a set of proper wrenches. That’s what we think we’re making: a set of wrenches for surgery.”
In 2016 a third-generation colon resection device took place in a successful clinical feasibility study outside the United States which provided invaluable feedback encouraging further miniaturization. VIC is currently pursuing FDA approval here in the US.
“The company is in very special place as we commence our key US clinical trial,” Dr. Oleynikov commented, “if successful, and believe it will be, we want Virtual Incision to be the new option in robotic surgical technology for patients and surgeons that is not only more innovative but also accessible and affordable.”
Both co-founders, Dr. Farritor, a native Nebraskan, and Dr. Oleynikov who has lived in the state for almost two decades feel strongly about keeping the business in Nebraska.
“Our company is a beacon of what one can do here in Nebraska,” stated a proud Dr. Oleynikov, “We have the talent, the vision and the ability to take good people into our company thus keep them from leaving. We have hired a number of excellent former students reducing the brain drain issue where the brightest minds graduating from our universities and colleges head out-of-state for jobs on the coasts.”
Dr. Oleynikov expressed gratitude for the support that Virtual Incision received early on but acknowledged that “it has not been an easy road.”
Hopefully, this recent round of investments will help the company preserve its current momentum and its example as a Nebraskan “homespun” success.
For additional information on this company, visit www.virtualincision.com
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