It’s called Verb Surgical, a collaboration with Johnson & Johnson, and it aims to make robots better surgical assistants. While Johnson & Johnson is an old hand at medical devices, Verily plans to contribute Google’s vast expertise in machine learning and advanced image processing to make the robots smarter.
The formation of the company is the culmination of a joint effort between Verily and the pharmaceutical giant announced in March. And it’s a sign of things likely to come as Verily’s efforts to work with partners across the industry heat up.
“Verb Surgical is the first time we’ve launched a new company with a partner,” Verily CEO Andrew Conrad tells WIRED. “We expect to work closely with pharma, biotech, medical device and diagnostic companies, patient advocacy groups, and academic researchers in different ways for a long time to come.”
A Mysterious Moonshot
In keeping with most other Google Life Sciences-related announcements, the launch of Verb Surgical is pretty secretive—precious few details are available. According to the press release announcing Verb, the company will be based in Google’s hometown of Mountain View, California. While it’s confirmed that both Johnson & Johnson and Verily have an equity investment in Verb Surgical, additional financial terms haven’t been publicly disclosed. Both J&J and Verily do say they’ve contributed intellectual property, research and development, and other resources—including managerial and surgical expertise—to Verb Surgical.
A company spokeswoman from Verily also declined to share how many employees would be working for Verb Surgical, saying only that the size of the team was “small.” Scott Heinekens, the former president of a heart imaging company called Volcano Corporation, will lead Verb as CEO, and Pablo E. Garcia Kilroy, a longtime employee of SRI International, the research institute that birthed Apple’s Siri, will become Verb Surgical’s vice president of research and technology. Dave Scott, most recently the vice president of R&D at Abbott Medical Optics, will lead the company’s engineering and product development efforts.
It’s also still a bit vague at this point what, exactly, Verb Surgical will be working on. “In the coming years, Verb aims to develop a comprehensive surgical solutions platform that will incorporate leading-edge robotic capabilities and best-in-class medical device technology for operating room professionals,” the press release reads. While that sounds like it has potential, it hardly paints a picture of how Verb is imagining the surgical room of the future. Are they setting out to design brand new tools from scratch? Will they improve on the tools that already exist?
But in the meantime, the launch of Verb Surgical is intriguing. It signals a maturing of Alphabet’s life sciences division, which has long made it clear that its ambitions included spinning off entirely new companies. Which makes sense: the formation of Alphabet created a safe space for Google’s riskier projects, its much-ballyhooed moonshots. Now, the company seems to be saying, it’s ready for some of those shots launched at the moon to start their journeys—all on their own.