The Chinese system of robotic assisted surgery challenges the Da Vinci
Chinese robotic assisted surgery system challenges da Vinci
In a bid to challenge the dominance of U.S.-based Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci systems, Chinese companies are developing their own surgical robots as part of a larger government initiative to localize the medical industry.
“We will make our robot system available for general surgical use starting in June,” announced Wang Bingqiang, the general manager of Weigao Group’s medical instrument division, referring to his company’s robot-assisted laparoscopic surgical system.
Weigao, headquartered in Weihai, Shandong province, became the first domestic company to receive approval from Chinese health authorities for a robot-assisted laparoscopic surgical system in 2021. The company is currently conducting clinical research at hospitals and expects to obtain certification for general surgery in early June.
“We currently have 20 units at hospitals conducting clinical research for various surgeries, including urological, liver, and thoracic procedures,” Wang stated.
Laparoscopic surgery robots, the most common type of surgical robots, involve a doctor performing surgery via a monitor while a robot arm, equipped with an endoscope, forceps, or scissors, is inserted through a hole in the abdomen. These robots can operate at angles impossible for humans and automatically compensate for any unintentional tremors made by the operator, enabling more precise surgery.
Intuitive Surgical was the first to introduce this technology in the 1990s, and since then, it has enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the market. According to Fosun International Securities, Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci system held a 100% market share of the 189 robot-assisted laparoscopic surgical systems in use in China at the end of 2020.
Weigao’s system is operated with 3D glasses instead of the covered monitor used by da Vinci, which the Chinese company claims reduces doctor fatigue. “Doctors can also communicate more easily with other doctors and nurses in the operating room,” Wang pointed out. The company also believes it has an advantage in its use of the 5G high-speed communication standard, which could enable doctors in China’s developed coastal areas to perform remote surgery on patients located in the country’s rural interior, where medical resources are scarce.
Price competitiveness is another strength of Weigao’s system. Haitong International Securities reports that the da Vinci system sells for around $3.5 million in China, whereas Weigao’s system is priced at 14 million yuan ($1.97 million).
The high price of the da Vinci system has contributed to a lower penetration rate of surgical robots in China compared to Europe and the U.S., with China accounting for only 5% of the global market.
However, Chinese companies are now gearing up for an expanded presence in the market. According to a January report from SPDB International Securities, four domestic companies have received approval from Chinese authorities. Shanghai MicroPort MedBot Group, established in 2015, has taken the lead in terms of commercialization, leveraging its location in a major city to accumulate a track record of clinical research. The company sold and delivered five units in 2022 and anticipates selling 10 to 20 units this year, according to a company source. Their system features four robot arms, enabling even more precise surgery than Weigao’s three-arm system.
While competition in the global surgical robot market is intensifying with the entry of companies like Japan’s Medicaroid, a joint venture between Sysmex and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, da Vinci’s dominance, backed by over two decades of real-world use and approval from authorities worldwide, remains formidable. The extensive number of doctors proficient in using da Vinci has also created a significant barrier to entry. Nevertheless, Chinese companies possess two distinct advantages.
Firstly, China’s policy of supporting domestic production, outlined in the “Made in China 2025” plan announced in 2015, prioritizes high-tech industries, including the medical sector. If China implements measures to favor the use of domestic robot systems, as it did with computer tomography and magnetic resonance imaging technology, which were previously monopolized by Western manufacturers, it could pose a threat to da Vinci’s dominance.
Secondly, the size of the Chinese market provides a significant advantage. SPDB predicts that the market for robot-assisted laparoscopic surgical systems in China will expand to approximately 40 billion yuan by 2032, marking a nearly tenfold increase over ten years. Chinese companies can leverage this growth to reduce prices and enhance quality.
“Wang acknowledges that da Vinci has decades of history and a large number of research and development personnel who upgrade their technology every year. Chinese companies entered the market relatively late, but we are now striving to catch up,” Wang acknowledged.