Maarten Steinbuch: ‘Brainport can make the best medical robots in the world’

20 years ago, Maarten Steinbuch, professor of Systems and Control at TU / e, saw an operating robot from the USA at work for the first time. With a little pressure, the robot arm begins to wobble. ‘We can do this better’, is the scientist’s first thought. The seed has been planted. The Brainport region is the best in the world for building high-tech machines and precision mechanics. ASML is the largest high-tech company on the European stock exchange. But why is the region not doing anything in the field of medical robot technology? Twenty years later, Steinbuch’s research group in medical robotics has spawned several start-ups and spin-offs.

He is now no longer a full-time scientist, but divides his time between his work for the university, his position as director at Eindhoven Engine and countless other activities – such as writing columns and advising companies.

‘Jump, out on the market’

It starts with an alternative to the American Da Vinci robot. Steinbuch talks to Professor Ivo Broeders, the first surgeon in the Netherlands who worked on a Da Vinci robot, about what he would like to see differently. Three specific questions arise: For example, he wants extra movement options at the end of the instrument so that he can ‘operate around a corner’ and better tackle hard-to-reach areas of the body. It must also be possible to install the robot faster, and there must be force feedback.

Steinbuch submits a grant application to the NWO-TTW (then NWO-STW) and, together with PhD student Linda van den Bedem, is developing a robot that meets the above requirements. “Jump up in the market, we’re starting a start-up”, I thought at the time. It turned out to be a bridge too far. We had a direct competitor in America, and then you have to spend a lot of money to compete with it. “

Microsurgical robot.
Microsurgical robot

The world’s first

Around that time, he will also – together with eye surgeon Marc de Smet – discuss a robot for eye surgery with TNO. There it must be even better, even more precisely. He is again applying for a PhD student and submitting another grant application. Succeeding: The first spin-out, Preceyes, is a fact. Using industry expertise in the Brainport region, the idea is translated into a product. “It was then that we really got it under control. More and more surgeons came to me. ”

René van der Hulst, a microsurgeon from Maastricht, is one of them. During the long, complex surgeries he performs, he develops pain in the neck. Together with the Maastricht UMC +, Steinbuch’s group is developing a robot with two arms, which makes the surgeon’s movement much more precise. This leads to the world’s first super-microsurgical intervention with ‘robot hands’ and to the foundation of the start-up Microsure.

The third spin-off to which TU / e has transferred several patents is Eindhoven Medical Robots. They work with partners from the region on, among other things, a bot robot. “They all fit. In the dream I had twenty years ago for a new medical precision robotics industry in the Brainport region.”

Long-term vision

Conducting research within the walls of the university, Steinbuch calls ‘essential’ – it is creative, independent and every result must have scientific added value. But really making a difference in healthcare is a different story. “As a researcher, it is important to listen very carefully to the problem in practice. In short, you should not start a project solely on the basis of your own research interest. For all the medical robotics we have developed, we listen to problems that healthcare professionals, suppliers and companies experience. ”

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The way cables run through a robot, for example. It does not mean much for a prototype, but it does for a manufacturer that produces a thousand robots. Steinbuch: “The conclusion is therefore: if we want to make a powerful contribution faster, we need to think beyond the university than just the prototype.”

But no matter how well he listens to healthcare professionals, suppliers and companies, it is clear that they do linear research at the university. “It is important that Brainport outlines a long-term vision for the region. And also reasoning back to what needs to be done now to achieve that goal in five years. That way, we can take this into account as much as possible in our research, the start of the whole chain. This ultimately strengthens the entire region’s innovative strength, ”Steinbuch explains.

Digitization and technology in the healthcare sector

The healthcare system – and with it the medtech sector – faces a huge challenge. “We already know that when I am eighty, there will not be enough health personnel. The only solution to that problem is to allow people to live independently at home for as long as possible. Digitization and technologicalization of the sector is only possible. Brainport has everything it takes to play an important role in this. ”

“In the Netherlands, we dare not invest in deep tech start-ups that need a lot of money and patience. Investors too often want to see results in the short term, but that’s not how it works in this sector. “

Maarten Steinbuch

As an example, Steinbuch mentions the preventive health care system, where gadgets are being developed that can be worn on the body and provide feedback. Or healing healthcare, for which Philips, among others, is developing ever smarter CT scanners and MRI machines. “Robotization is also crucial to keeping health care affordable,” the professor says. He believes the Brainport region has a unique proposal in the field of medical robot technology. “At Brainport, we can make the very best medical robots in the world. I know that for sure. We are so precise. ”

Investment in deep tech

How is it possible that Brainport is so good at – compared to, for example, the United States? Steinbuch’s answer is resolute: “As a region, we are simply extremely good at the precision manufacturing industry, where systems integration and mechatronic thinking are crucial. Think of big companies like Philips, ASML and Canon and suppliers like VDL, NTS, Sioux. Around it is a large, strong ecosystem of small (re) companies. ”

But before Brainport can make the best medical robots in the world, something must change, according to Steinbuch. “In the Netherlands, we dare not invest in deep tech start-ups that need a lot of money and patience. Investors too often want to see results in the short term, but that’s not how it works in this sector. “Steinbuch, a man of deeds, is considering setting up a Brainport Alumnus Fund, specifically for this type of investment.” Together we need to put shoulders to the steering wheel. “

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