According to a recent market report, the global medical robotics industry is forecast to be worth US$11.4 billion by 2020 – increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 22 per cent from 2015.
At least one institution is riding the wave. The National University of Singapore (NUS) is proving to be a leading force in the evolution of healthcare robotics. The institution is studying the mechanisms of nature to develop new medical technology that will fulfil a range of unmet clinical needs in the healthcare industry.
“Singapore currently stands high among the countries with leading research institutions for bio-inspired research,” says Dr Raye Yeow, head of the NUS Evolution Innovation Laboratory and assistant professor at the NUS Department of Biomedical Engineering.
“The vision of the Evolution Innovation Laboratory is to develop innovative technologies inspired by nature.” Dr Yeow and his team are using such insights to develop a range of new innovations in soft surgical robotics, soft rehabilitation robotics and wearable sensors.
These three rapidly developing fields are set to improve healthcare outcomes in Singapore and around the world, while also offering exciting opportunities for private businesses to assist in the commercialisation process.
Soft surgical robotics
Tissue damage during surgery is a common cause of surgical negligence lawsuits and can result in damage to veins, nerves and other underlying structures in affected patients. This creates additional need for rehabilitation services and puts further pressure on Singapore’s healthcare system even as the government increases health spending from $4.7 billion in 2012 to $11 billion in 2016. Innovations in soft surgical robotics aim to remove such risks of soft tissue damage during surgery.
Dr Yeow and his team have used soft surgical robotic technology to develop a soft chamber-gripper device that can be used to grip nerves without inflicting damage like traditional forceps can.
“This device is highly customisable to suit different surgical requirements and prevents tissue trauma during surgical manipulation,” points out Dr Yeow. “It has an integrated air chamber that, when compressed, transfers pressurised air into the gripper component to trigger a soft gripping action.”
Dr Yeow and his team are currently putting the soft nerve grippers through clinical trials to prove the utility of the innovation before it can enter the market.
“Once we have the pre-clinical and clinical trial data in place to de-risk this technology, we hope to attract medical technology companies to license this technology and help commercialise the use of the device for various surgical procedures,” he says.