Is Auris Still Building a Robot for Cataract Surgery?

Is Auris Still Building a Robot for Cataract Surgery?
Auris Surgical Robotics Inc., a Bay Area medical technology company that had been developing a robotic platform for cataract surgery, just raised $150 million, but is in “stealth” mode as to what the proceeds of the capital infusion will be used for.

David Schumer, head of marketing for Auris, would neither confirm nor deny reports that Auris is still working on the robotic platform for cataract surgery. “At this time, we feel it’s best to remain stealth on this,” he said.

Auris filed a notice with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) on September 23, that it had sold all but $450,000 of the $150 million issued in equity holdings. Last year, Auris filed notice with the SEC that it had raised $34 million.

Among the investors in the latest filing are Ajay Royan, who co-founded, with Peter Thiel, the San Francisco investment firm Mithril Capital Management; Peter Hébert, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Lux Capital, a venture firm that invests in “counter-conventional” technology; and David Styka, Executive Vice President and CFO of 3-D printing firm 3D Systems, of Rock Hill, S.C., who had been an executive at Family Dollar.

The key investor is Frederic Moll, MD, Auris Chairman and CEO, whom described as “the serial entrepreneur behind a raft of robotic surgery companies,” Dr. Moll is also a senior adviser to Kearny Venture Partners, a Bay Area medical technology investment firm.

Dr. Moll co-founded Intuitive Surgical Inc., maker of the da Vinci surgical robot that has been widely used in urology, gynecology and, more recently, general surgery procedures like liver and gall bladder removal. He also co-founded Hansen Medical Inc., which today makes the Magellan system for cardiac and vascular procedures. He also co-founded orthopedic surgical robot maker Mako Surgical, which Stryker Corporation acquired in 2013, and Restoration Robotics, which sells a robotic hair restoration device.

In October 2013, Auris signed an agreement with Biolase, a dental laser company, to jointly develop a robotic microsurgical system specifically for ophthalmic surgery. Auris would manufacture the system. Schumer declined to say whether or not the agreement is still active, and a spokesman for Biolase could not provide confirmation before press time. Dr. Moll joined the Biolase board shortly before the agreement was announced.

“The goal of the product in development is to improve the precision, safety and predictability of cataract-removal procedures, similar to the way other telerobotic systems have enhanced therapeutic effectiveness of procedures such as prostatectomy, fibroidectomy and knee hemi-arthroplasty. The development is in the feasibility and prototyping phase,” Biolase stated in a press release announcing the agreement.

When the agreement was announced, Dr. Moll said, “We evaluated a variety of advanced cutting technologies for use in our robotic cataract-removal system. For cutting precision, system compatibility, and lack of tissue trauma, we found significant advantages in using BIOLASE’s WaterLase technology. We anticipate that our system will have major advantages over traditional phacoemulsification and should create a new standard for safety, speed and effectiveness in cataract removal.”

WaterLase technology is proprietary tissue-cutting system Biolase uses in its dental devices. Biolase had set up an “Occulase Division” to work on the Auris robot.

Meanwhile, in July, Biolase hired dental industry executive Harold Flynn Jr. as President and CEO. In May Biolase’s stock price plunged almost 50% after reaching a high of $2.97 in December 2014. More recently, the stock price fell again from $1.50 to $0.87 through September.