Dubai: “Calling Dr Robot, calling Dr Robot, your next surgery’s waiting...”
Such a vision needn’t be confined to the pages of sci-fi books of their movie spin-offs. A UAE-based investment group is pumping in millions of dirhams to make this compelling image a reality in local/regional hospitals.
Crescent Enterprises has committed $16 million (Dh58.76 million) into two University of Texas projects to bring them to market, including a miniature, mobile robotic surgery console.
“Sure, robotic surgery is already being done in some form at top-notch hospitals,” said Neeraj Agrawal, executive director at Crescent Enterprises. “But these are essentially bulky machines with four arms. You could say these are more like the mainframe computers.
“But this is the age of laptops, and the smaller and more powerful they, all the better. That’s what we are trying to do with robotic surgery. Science will move surgery away from humans to robots, which is much more precise and with less scope for complexity.
“More importantly, we want to see how much of this technology can be brought to this region.”
With the news funds, which also included commitments from a US investor, Crescent now expects to fast-track the two projects to become commercially viable. In the process, it will next work towards getting regulatory approval in the US and outside as well.
“By end 2018, we could have completed the animal and human testing required to apply for regulatory approval,” said Agrawal. “You need to have the empirical data to show them.
“By 2019, we want to apply for CE [which stands for “Conformité Européene”] approval and FDA [the Food & Drug Administration in the US] approval. Once we get the CE stamp, we could start manufacturing and sell it outside of the US.”
The second concept is for a “steerable catheter” with an electric tip at the front.
“For someone affected, there could be a period of about four hours to remove a block from the head,” said Agrawal. “Or with blockages in the artery, you could try and put a catheter through the thigh; but there is always the chance that it may not go all the way when you put it through the thigh.
“The concept we are funding can go all the way up to the brain. We are getting ready for regulatory approval. This year and the next are the period for testing.
“We are supporting commercialisation of research, which has been developed to a point where we were comfortable with the risk-reward matrix.”
Both ventures were kickstarted by a University of Texas affiliated doctor-scientist.
“Our investments will typically look at concepts coming to the point of prototype,” the Crescent Enterprises official added. “What we will do is bring in capital for the next stage, which is the testing on animals and humans.
“This stage of funding will take up the prototype and institutionalise from an university environment to a company atmosphere.”
Middle East funds are gradually starting to take up health care and allied projects that go way beyond the typical commitments made into developing super-speciality hospitals or clinics.
Crescent Enterprises plans to raise and commit $150 million over the next three years in chasing “early-stage” investment opportunities, with health care being identified as one key sector. The others could be opportunities in fast-moving consumer goods and logistics.
As of now, it has taken an exposure in a drone company in Silicon Valley and also supported a University of Sharjah engineering project.
“It will be our own capital we are deploying,” said Agrawal. “There will be a pipeline of opportunities — we are a 40-year business basically in brick-and-mortar. But we see some industries where tech has not yet been unleashed.
“The idea of being aware of opportunities in the medical space was very much in our mind. Not big hospitals because we didn’t see any major differentiator in terms of being able to adding value.
“But as Crescent Enterprises, we can combine capital, knowledge and create regional opportunities.”
It got the first taste of a health care venture when it brought in a “world-class” diagnostics facility to the region. It was set up in Al Quoz.
“The land was provided and we wanted something infinitely better than the kitchen labs that we see being called diagnostic facilities,” said Agrawal. “Today’s diseases can be prevented if the whole testing process is of high-quality. We ran for it 10 years and exited the business last year at a decent sort of return.”