Welcome to this week’s edition of the Robotic Surgery Today blog and the third and final segment of our three-part interview series with Dr. Hannah Teichmann. Hannah is the Vice President of Clinical Development at Medical Microinstruments, a Robotic Surgery Start-up company based in Italy’s Pisa region. In our first interview we learnt a bit about the co-founders and their efforts to move their idea from concept to prototype. The result of their efforts was a novel robotic microsurgery device and their company, MMI. In the second interview we learnt a bit about their mission and what distinguishes them from other companies in this sector. Today we talk about technology, innovation and society and get a glimpse into some of their aspirations and motivations and hear about some of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
Technology, Innovation and Society
Paul: How important or relevant are societal issues such as diversity (gender, ethnicity, age etc.) patient care, human rights to the robotic industry in general and Medical Microinstruments in particular? How is your firm addressing or intending to address such issues, for example through corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities?
Dr. Hannah Teichmann, VP Clinical Development
Medical Microinstruments: Diversity of the workforce is a major issue in robotics and technology companies in general and that has been highlighted multiple times in the media recently, with the pervasive toxic brogrammer culture being widely condemned. Having our own company has faced us with the challenge of building a diverse team and we have to admit that it hasn’t been easy. We have a number of open positions, and most of the applicant pool tend to be white men. We had 70 applications for an electrical engineering position, of which only one was a woman and she happened to be the best match in terms of experience and expertise, but declined our offer. The position has remained open and we have to strike a balance between growing at the speed we need to meet our R&D goals and forming a balanced team in terms of diversity. It has been a somewhat frustrating process and we can do better because our entire technical team is male at the moment, which means we need to work on that. We have built an international team, with 6 different nationalities on board- not bad for a small company in Tuscany.
In terms of patient care and patient advocacy, we are committed to bringing a product to market that will have an impact. Just being a robot is not good enough today. At the dawn of surgical robotics twenty years ago, efficacy was secondary, but we are aiming higher.
We are researching how we can contribute to some of the amazing foundations and charities that exist in the domain of medical education and plastic reconstructive surgery in the future, such as “Facing Africa”, “Smile Train”, the “Arpa Foundation” and others. That could be either through robotic collaborations or other forms of corporate contributions that get the whole team involved on a personal level.
Privacy and black swans
Paul: Melvin Kranzberg, the technology historian postulates six “laws” of technology, one of which is “technology is neither good nor bad: nor is it neutral”. From this perspective what might be some of the public policy issues that need to be discussed as we seek to adopt and take advantage of new technologies such as robotic surgery?
Medical Microinstruments: Patient health data protection and liability come to mind, in particular when discussing surgical robots that have an autonomous component and work based on pre-operative imaging. Our platform is designed for robot-assisted surgery, i.e. the surgeon drives the robot and there is no automation involved today. Certainly we have modeled our business in a fashion that is sustainable to the public healthcare policies that are pervasive in Europe, which is where we will first come to market.
Paul: There are high expectations from a healthcare perspective as well as potential profitability perspective for robotic surgery. What developments in other fields – “black swans” – could make the robotic surgery field obsolete? How likely is this?
Medical Microinstruments: We would welcome a cure to cancer that makes post-oncological reconstructions obsolete or an end to combat and ballistic trauma over a good exit or IPO any day. Sadly, neither of those is on the horizon. Perhaps the black swan that is not even a black swan anymore are automation and AI, which are completely compatible with robotic surgery, they would just change the nature of the surgeon’s contribution. However, being blind to black swans is our nature.
Some personal reflections by the Founders
Paul: What qualities do you bring as founders? How do these qualities and also you as individuals augment or complement each other?
Medical Microinstruments: We sometimes jokingly refer to ourselves as the Dream Team, because we think we complement each other so well. Max has great practical sense and the social skills to manage the R&D team, Giuseppe has the ability to create momentum and cohesion around a project, and Hannah envisions the next application of the robot and will call anyone out if necessary.
Paul: On a more personal note, what do you consider to be your mission in life? What legacy do you want to leave behind? What role does Medical Microinstruments play in advancing this mission?
Medical Microinstruments: We hope to make a difference in the care people receive. If there is one person who can have a finger replantation facilitated by the robot, who would have lost his or her finger without it, we have made a difference. We hope that in our entrepreneurship we are making a contribution to our surroundings and the people we work with that gives them a positive experience they might otherwise not have come across here. At a personal level, I am inspired by John Wesley’s quote that Hilary Rodham Clinton cited during her campaign “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
Women in technology
Paul: Today greater attention is being given to issues of equity and diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Hannah, as one of the founders of this company could you share some reflections on how gender has shaped your path?
Medical Microinstruments: I am very passionate about gender equality and my path from basic research to clinical development actually started in grad school. I was driven by my passion for helping women navigate maternity care, where hospital practice is frequently far from what evidence-based practice would suggest and this doesn’t act in women’s favor during a particularly delicate moment in one’s life.
I am aware of challenges I have faced and continue to face due to gender. Beyond being a female entrepreneur, Giuseppe and I are part of a husband-wife co-founder team together with Max, which I have become aware can be perceived in a mixed light. I think it gives us advantages some founder teams might not have. We are really united in this effort and allow each other to put more into our work than other partners might tolerate, so I think this is also advantageous to our work and it can be frustrating to be judged for this choice we have made. Our three month old has been on seventeen planes with me so far, and most of those flights were work-related. I know why Giuseppe isn’t always home for dinner and it’s ok, because we are on the same page. It’s a balancing act at the moment trying to do justice to all the tasks at hand, because they need to not only be done, but done well. I often feel I need to step up because women are conditioned not to speak out, and if I don’t pay attention to the game I will get sidelined.
Paul: As Founders working in a highly competitive space, how do you stay focused, motivated and energized to pursue your life’s mission?
Medical Microinstruments: Each of us has their own outlets. Max plays basketball and is also a singer-songwriter with a rockband. Giuseppe meditates and shares that practice with others. I have always danced, but recently I feel like I get most of my exercise running through airports.
Preparing the next generation of robotic surgeons and inventors
Paul: What advice would you give to young women, young men and children considering a career in the robotic surgery field? Where can people learn more about the robotic surgery field?
Medical Microinstruments: Surgical robotics is a rapidly growing field with many opportunities for people with different profiles or expertise and offers an opportunity to create something that can concretely improve patient care. To anyone considering a future in surgical robotics, I would suggest getting involved with simple things that surround us today, beyond studying. For kids and teenagers, that can be Lego Mindstorms, which offer a fun play experience while learning the basic concepts of robotics. The same is true of Arduino, with which one can implement simple automated systems at really low prices.
Surgical robotics is really a sector that allows you to work with and develop cutting-edge technology and also offers the opportunity to communicate and work with clinicians, so it is a truly multi-disciplinary sector in which team work, together with creative and lateral thinking is pushing its growth.
Internationally, robotics courses are taking off in high schools and at universities. In Italy, where we are based, there are robotic centers of excellence in Pisa, Genoa, Naples and Milan with a particular focus on healthcare. Online you can find videos of the main surgical robots on the market and the most out-there ideas from academic research. A number of these robots could even be tested at the International Robotics Festival in Pisa in September 2017, so anyone in the geographic area should watch out for this year’s edition, or plan a trip to Tuscany to check it out: http://www.festivalinternazionaledellarobotica.it/en/
How to get in touch with Medical Microinstruments (MMI) ?
Paul: I’d like to give you the opportunity to tell our audience about the services you offer and also let people know where they can find out more about Medical Microinstruments yourselves and even get in touch?
Medical Microinstruments: Anyone who is interested in learning more about what we do should visit our website www.mmimicro.com. We have a short introductory video to our company that introduces our product and the three of us, and we can be contacted at email@example.com.
Paul: Thank you for taking the time to be with us and sharing your insights! We wish you every success in your endeavors!
Medical Microinstruments: Thank you!
Coming next week,
We will be hearing from Dr. Terry Loftus and getting more insights into establishing a successful Robotics Program at your hospital.
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