FlexDex begins shipping low-cost surgical tool designed to replace robotic system

New applications for robots seem to be in the news every day, but Ann Arbor-based FlexDex Surgical's new surgical tool increases surgeons' flexibility and reduces costs by taking a robot out of the equation.

The mechanical platform, which allows surgeons to more easily make sutures inside the body during minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries, recently began shipping nationwide. Developed in a University of Michigan (U-M) engineering lab, the device is designed to be ergonomic and intuitive to use. Unlike other laparoscopic surgical tools, the FlexDex needle driver mimics the direction of the surgeon’s hand and locates the device’s center of rotation at the surgeon’s wrist, where it's mounted.

Before the invention of the FlexDex device, surgeons could use an old-fashioned but cumbersome straight-stick instrument or the robot-assisted da Vinci surgical system, whose $2 million price tag is prohibitively expensive for many hospital systems. Both approaches take more training to use than the FlexDex device.

At $500, the FlexDex also has a clear cost advantage. The low price is partly due to the fact that the FlexDex device is purely mechanical, requiring no power source. The device uses cables and pulleys that are relatively inexpensive to produce.

"Those parts are just put together in a novel way to provide robot-like dexterity in a mechanical instrument," says FlexDex chairman and CEO Thomas Davison.

The FlexDex platform has already been used in operations. Down the road, FlexDex will be able to attach tools other than a needle to the platform.

"We started with the needle holder because one of the more difficult maneuvers in surgery is suturing," says Davison.

The company has plans to start shipping other FlexDex-compatible laparoscopic instruments soon, including vessel sealers, scissors, graspers, and dissector instruments. FlexDex has raised over $10 million through federal grants and private investments.

FlexDex was cofounded in 2014 by pediatric surgeon Jim Geiger, surgery professor at the U-M Medical School and pediatric surgeon at U-M C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital; and Shorya Awtar, associate professor of mechanical engineering at U-M. The technology stems from research funded by the National Science Foundation.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
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