Each month we profile an innovative, growing company from across The Golden Triangle of Cambridge, London and Oxford. This month we speak to Martin Frost, CEO of Cambridge Medical Robotics.
Tell us about Cambridge Medical Robotics and how it all began back in 2014?
I ran a consultancy company for many years, working with the medical device world. I got talking with a group of friends in tech companies across Cambridge and we felt that the revolution promised by robotics hadn’t been delivered in the operating theatre. We decided to meet this challenge head on.
Most companies start with a breakthrough in university or industry – we didn’t do that – we started with a big problem ie. millions of people every year don’t get the right sort of surgery and surgeons don’t have the right tools, and then, with a clear specification and a world-class engineering team, we designed the system from the ground up.
Your aim is to make make minimal access surgery available to all clinicians – how does your robot differ to those currently available?
Existing robotics are large and heavy and you can’t easily move them between operating theatres.. Ours are lighter and transportable, so you can move them between floors and hospitals.
Our system isn’t an octopus structure from a central body, but comprises of modular arms that can be moved around the room and placed wherever is convenient for the patient. We see the robot as a slave to the surgeon, and not the other way around.
And your aim is to make robotics more affordable too?
Our vision from the start was to create something that can adapt, is small in size, and cost-effective, so that minimal access surgery can be universal. We can provide all the technology, in a simpler design, at a more compelling price. Currently robots cost over £1m to buy and are expensive to operate and maintain, meaning it is about £3,000 for every procedure. There are currently around 4,000 robots in hospitals doing 750,000 procedures. That gets expensive. We can significantly reduce that cost.
Having started as a team of three, were you concerned that large competitors would get there first?
When we started out, there was only one main competitor; Intuitive surgical, a US headquartered company. Now we are seeing some of the world’s largest companies such as Medtronic and Johnson & Johnson entering the party. But I see it as a huge compliment and it isn’t a challenge to our business model.
Our independent system is now patented and hospitals love to talk and collaborate with us, as we are a smaller company that works flexibly, independently and agile, and we will listen and deliver. We are confident that we will be working with hospitals by the end of next year.
You have had a lot of media interest recently, what has the reaction been to your product?
We have had a huge amount of interest on a national level and we are working with hospitals at the moment to get our product right. Until about six months ago, we were working covertly so it is still early days into our ‘big reveal’, but so far the feedback has been positive.
One thing that is clear is that robotics isn’t going backwards. In ten years’ time, we will see many more enhancing our daily roles, and in hospitals. We live in a cash-strapped, fast-paced society, and robotics have so much to offer us.
You have now raised £46m through two rounds of funding, can you tell us how you went about this and what you believe investors are looking for?
I’ve raised about £150m investment for tech companies over the past 20 years; from angel to Venture Capital and Private Equity. However, when CMR were looking at a seed round it was hard to find investors. Our initial funding of £4m was from a Norwegian family office and we didn’t bring in British money until Series A, through Cambridge Innovation Capital.
In general, in the medical device area, it is hard to find this amount of money as it is so expensive to bring devices to market. Money tends to follow success stories so it can be very hard to get a start-up off the ground.
You have to pick a massive unmet need – we had that as 95% of minimal access procedures are not yet done robotically. My advice is to go look for the largest unmet need you can find and investors will be prepared to overlook the risks for the potential return. From the very beginning we had a plan of how we would get our product to market and our commercial advantage – at the top of our plan was the big idea, at the bottom was our breakthrough tech.
15% of your employees are non-British, do you see any problems ahead in terms of retaining and recruiting staff?
We are lucky in that we have excellent applicants for roles at CMR, creating a very talented workforce. The best innovation comes from a stimulus of a diverse group of people. We have a broad group of technically talented people, which helps us to come up with unusual solutions. We will do everything we can to retain these people.
If we are only able to recruit people from the UK we are reducing access to our supply of fantastic talent. The Silicon Valley phenomenon was created off the back of immigration, which stimulated the economic wealth and growth in California. I don’t know why the UK is putting itself in a position where we will be coming off worse in innovation.
Why did you choose Cambridge to set up shop?
You need an unusual set of technical and commercial skills in a medtech company and Cambridge is an excellent place to find those. All around us sits this thriving technology and consulting ecosystem. We are also in a beautiful location, in a converted barn in Cambridge, and the working environment is tremendous. We have since outgrown our original building, and expanded across five buildings, as we are now at 150 people and growing.
Which other companies are exciting you at the moment?
There are so many around, and particularly in Cambridge. Owlstone Medical led by Billy Boyle is a mission-led company with a clear purpose, developing breath biopsy cancer diagnostics. Another one is Horizon Discovery, led by Darren Disley, focusing on next-gen gene editing tools and now listed on the London Stock Exchange. What’s nice is that we all know each other so we learn from frustrations and mistakes and share in success.
What’s next on the cards?
We have sourced the biggest investment into medical devices over the last 10 – 15 years and it’s a great privilege and huge fun to be heading up this company. We have grown very fast and the challenge we now have is to scale up a small British company on a global scale and to continually plan ahead for what the market needs. Execution of the plan is critical and so does maintaining our culture of being transparent, humble, ambitious and fast-moving.
Find out more about Cambridge Medical Robotics here