How British MedTech company, CMR Surgical, set out to transform surgery – making it less invasive, safer and more cost-effective
Martin Frost’s route to becoming an acclaimed med tech entrepreur is anything but typical. The co-Founder of CMR Surgical read history at Cambridge before returning to his birthplace in Manchester to train as an accountant.
Frost admitted he was “terrible” at accounting but learnt how to write software along the way and moved into the IT industry in the early days of the executive information system. His finance and computing background helped him excel in both Europe and America before he eventually returned to Cambridge in the late 1990s, working in the science group of Sagentia, a global tech and product development company. It was here that he met future business partners.
But by far the most pivotal moment in his life came early on in his childhood. His mother tragically died in the operating theatre when a surgical procedure went wrong. Admitting that her death destroyed him at the time, Frost later tapped into that haunting memory and used it as a spur to start Cambridge Medical Robotics in January 2014 with four others.
Frost and his business parteners all shared the same passion to transform surgery by standardizing procedures, improving safety and outcomes with technology. Specifically, the team was keen to address why many people still weren’t receiving minimal access surgery. Unlike open surgery, minimal access surgery dramatically reduces the risks of surgical site infection, blood loss and complications. In turn, it results in less scarring and pain and a quicker recovery time with minimal need for painkillers.
In spite of the benefits, according to Mark Slack, Chief Medical Officer and co-Founder of CMR Surgical, only 30-40% of patients who should be offered minimal access surgery were receiving it. Primarily, this was due to the technical difficulties of operating on patients with just grainy 2D images for guidance. Furthermore, available technologies such as the Da Vinci Robotic Surgical System introduced 20 years ago by US firm Intuitive Surgical, proved to be too expensive.
To overcome the challenges, the five founders of CMR Surgical decided to build from scratch, their own Versius system. The main component of it is a modular system of robot arms that can be wheeled from one operating theatre to another to perform a series of minimally invasive procedures in gynecology, colorectal, upper GI, and laparoscopic or keyhole surgery. Slack claims the small, versatile and highly mobile nature of Versius maximizes its usage and facilitates a more cost-effective deployment.
The console which surgeons use to control the robot arms comes with a training unit and an endoscopic camera to immerse users in a virtual environment of maneuvering Versius and performing a selection of laparoscopic tasks in 3D. This allows surgeons to receive ample and continuous training ahead of actual clinical practice. Furthermore, surgeons can record and capture every Versius procedure they have performed, whether under training and during live surgeries, in a logbook on the Versius Connect mobile application.
Surgeons can also review their skill acquisition journey via the mobile app. Over time, they can also compare their performance against the best in class groups across the world and turn Versius Connect into their personalized training aide as the app keep streamlining data-driven insights based on the surgeon’s utilization.
At the top of the Versius system is the CMR Registry, comprising of real-time, anonymized data that help to establish and support benchmarks for surgical standards and safety. The entire Versius system is believed to generate valuable insights to support hospitals to effectively spot outliers, improve overall surgical governance and assist surgeons to reach proficiency more efficiently.
Under the leadership of Frost, Cambridge Medical Robotics evolved into CMR Surgical in 2018 and became a unicorn company (a private company valued at over $1 billion) in October 2019.
The Versius system is now deployed in two public UK hospitals including The Western General Hospital in Edinburgh and Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Trust in Buckinghamshire as well as hospitals in India and Australia. CMR Surgical enjoys close ties with Cambridge Innovation Capital, which participated in four of its investment rounds as well as Addenbrookes Hospital (part of Cambridge University) where a number of the company leaders were recruited from.
Having grown the company to 400 employees across 4 continents, the next stage for CMR is to continue scaling internationally and to deploy Versius in more NHS hospitals in the coming years. “We are very confident,” said Frost. “We have a product-market fit from day one because it was never a technology looking for a market, the need for the products already clearly existed. But I will only be happy when we have a device that’s doing hundreds and thousands of procedures for patients who wouldn’t otherwise have received minimal access surgery.”