UW Start-Up Applied Dexterity Creates Innovation Ecosystem for Medical Robotics

Story by Eric Wagner

In 2002, officials with the U.S. Department of Defense wanted a way to treat wounded soldiers on the frontlines within the so-called Golden Hour—that period immediately after a person suffers a traumatic injury, when medical intervention can mean the difference between life and death. They were loath to put surgeons in harm’s way, though, and looked to the field of robotic surgery for a solution. And they enlisted two professors of biorobotics from the UW College of Engineering, Blake Hannaford and Jacob Rosen.

Raven I

RAVEN I was tested in a simulated clinical environment using anesthetized animal model.

So charged, Hannaford and Rosen developed a surgical platform, the RAVEN, that was smaller, lighter, and considerably less expensive than the da Vinci surgical system, which dominates the market. Controlling the RAVEN remotely, surgeons could perform minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery on a patient, maneuvering the RAVEN’s two arms precisely in tight spaces, all by using 3D HD visualization. And they could do so from a safe location. In one memorable demonstration, operators in Seattle performed a series of procedures simulating surgical tasks with a RAVEN that had been reassembled 60 feet underwater off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.

Hannaford and Rosen saw that their system could be useful for more than just remote surgery, though—it could give a big boost to surgical robotics research more generally. But they needed help taking the RAVEN to market. That was when the UW Center for Commercialization (UW C4C) stepped in. Through a program offered by the UW Foster School of Business, an MBA student did market research on surgical robotics, to see how the RAVEN might fare. Then, the UW C4C New Ventures Mentor program paired Hannaford and Rosen with David Drajeske, a former engineer who had extensive experience both developing and launching new biotech companies. In 2013, the three of them formed Applied Dexterity, Inc.

The RAVEN gives researchers an out-of-the-box, ready-to-run platform with which to do cutting-edge biorobotics research. “It’s like the early days of personal computing,” says Drajeske, now Applied Dexterity’s CEO. “If someone wanted to write code, they had to build their own PC. But then along came the Apple PC, and it just changed the game.”

One benefit of the new platform, now in its third generation, is that unlike the da Vinci, which cannot be modified by individual users, the software for RAVEN II is open-source, providing the robotics community with a way to join their research under a common platform. “What this means for researchers is that they can really get under the hood and program the thing,” Drajeske says. They can develop new tools for robotic surgery, as well as new procedures. And if they find ways to improve the platform, those improvements are available to the entire group.

Currently, 13 institutions around the world are using the RAVEN on a wide range of research projects. At Harvard University, for example, one team is studying how to operate on a beating human heart, which requires compensating for its movements. (During human-performed heart surgery currently, the heart must be stopped.) Another group, at the University of California-Berkeley, is learning how to teach the RAVEN to remove bad tissue from a surgical site on its own. “Figuring out ways to automate simple tasks can be really important,” says Mohammad Haghighipanah, a graduate student in Hannaford’s lab at UW.

The RAVEN is also useful for training purposes. Although the FDA has not yet approved it for surgery on human subjects, it has performed surgery on animals, and studies have shown that the skills surgeons pick up from training on a RAVEN transfer well to the da Vinci.

“It would be good for hospitals that have a da Vinci, but don’t want to buy another one because it’s too expensive,” Haghighipanah says.


RAVEN on the set of Ender’s Game, portraying a teleoperated robot on an orbiting station

The Applied Dexterity team has been traveling far and wide to demonstrate the RAVEN. They recently showcased the technology in Hong Kong at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Conference on Robotics and Automation, and will travel to Chicago for the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in the fall. And the RAVEN has already made its feature film debut, performing (simulated) brain surgery in a scene of Ender’s Game.

More than 200,000 patients have benefited from robot-assisted surgical procedures. In this fast-growing market, researchers all over the world are looking for ways to improve the capabilities of robot-assisted surgery. Treatments need to be developed, and students of robotic surgery need to be trained and evaluated. The RAVEN will be a boon in all of this.

“Having a common platform like the RAVEN really helps to enable collaboration,” Drajeske says. “It creates an innovation ecosystem.”