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Luna lands deal with robotmaker Print E-mail
Jeff Sturgeon and Andrew Kantor

The world's only maker of surgical robots has selected a small Roanoke company to provide a navigation aid to be built into future generations of the high-tech devices for complex, minimally invasive operations.

Officials at Luna Innovations, which has struggled for years to make money, announced a licensing, development and supply agreement Thursday with Intuitive Surgical Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Investors bid up Luna shares nearly 25 percent on the news that the company has a new source of income.

"This is a major deal for us," said Scott Graeff, Luna's chief commercialization officer.

The dollar value of the deal wasn't disclosed.

As a result of its new relationship with Intuitive, one of the largest medical device companies in the United States, Luna will add an unspecified number of jobs to its payroll of 225. The company has operations in Blacksburg and in Roanoke, where it occupies the anchor space in Carilion Clinic's biomedical building, known as Riverside Center. Carilion is a major Luna shareholder.

Luna is tapping into a trend known as minimally invasive surgery, in which doctors use tiny instruments inserted through small incisions in a patient. Compared with open surgery, MIS offers reduced recovery times and lower risk of infection.

In more than 90 percent of cases, the procedure is done manually -- the surgeon manipulates the instruments with the aid of a tiny camera inserted into the patient.

The robotic alternative involves use of the da Vinci surgery system, made by Luna's new business partner, which lets surgeons give commands to a computer instead; the computer controls the instruments. The robot is used for chest, gynecologic and urologic procedures, including half of all prostate removals.

With today's da Vinci technology, the medical team sees inside the patient via a tiny camera on the tip of a fiber-optic cable. Luna's device will enhance the performance of the surgical system by providing doctors and nurses more information about where surgical tools are within a patient's body.

"Today he [the doctor] knows what he's looking at, but he doesn't have a precise location of where he is in the body," said Ken Ferris, president of Luna's Advanced Systems Division. "We can tell the surgeon exactly where inside the body the instrument's located."

Luna's device uses a fiber-optic cable that includes three separate glass threads -- called cores -- arranged in a triangle. Along those cores are spaced tiny embedded sensors that can determine how much and where each core is bending. A computer takes that information and determines the exact location of the end of the probe.

Other techniques for locating the instruments within a patient's body are less accurate or more dangerous, Ferris said, such as those that use X-rays.

"It's an order of magnitude better than anything that's out there," Ferris said.

Luna's business model, to glean commercial products from contract research done for the federal government and other partners, worked well in this case, company officials said.

Government and other contract funders paid to develop the instrument-location technology at a cost of about $5 million. Luna partnered with Intuitive to apply the technology to a commercial need -- in this case, more advanced surgical instruments.

The deal comes at a time when Luna, which garners four-fifths of its money from contract research, has not been profitable for two years. Company executives have said they expect the company to lose about $9 million on revenue of about $30 million this year. That forecast was not revised in Thursday's news release.

Company officials have said the company needs to collect more money from the product side of the house, through the sale of products or technology licensing. The Intuitive Surgical deal provides more product-based revenue and the first payment has been made, company officials said Thursday.

It comes on the heels of word last month that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared a $40,000 blood-gas device, another Luna innovation, for sale to hospitals.

Luna declined to say how much it received from Intuitive when the deal closed Monday or what current and future payments will come to.

It's not clear when the new generation of the surgical robot containing the Luna feature will hit the market.

Sean Lavin, a senior research analyst at Oppenheimer and Co. in Chicago who follows Intuitive Surgical, said he expects it will be one to three years before the California manufacturer releases a new generation of the robot.

Whenever it occurs, doctors are likely to be hungry for them. Intuitive Surgical, with 600 to 650 robots sold, is selling into a "huge market" with big opportunity, according to Lavin.

An Oppenheimer representative visited recent annual meetings of the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Urology Association. "At all three conventions, surgeon interest was overwhelming," Oppenheimer said in a report.

Shares of Luna closed Thursday at $4.66, up 91 cents. Volume was 2.7 million shares, 10 times normal.

 
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