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Surgical Robotics Serial Entrepreneur’s Stealth Startup Raises $149M

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Most young companies that had raised close to $184 million over the last two years would be clamoring for press attention by now. But not Auris Surgical Robotics.

The San Carlos, CA-based medical robotics company remained firmly in stealth mode as tech reporters learned via its SEC filing this week that it had raised $149.5 million in an equity financing whose investors were not disclosed.

That whopping round follows an earlier $34 million raise in March 2014 for the company, which was co-founded in 2009 by CEO Frederic Moll. Moll is the entrepreneur behind three other medical device companies, including Sunnyvale, CA-based Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ: ISRG), the pioneering developer of the da Vinci system for minimally invasive, robot-assisted surgery.

Auris spokesman David Schummers declined to comment on the technology being developed at Auris, or its plans for all that new money.

The best hints about what Auris is cooking up behind the scenes come from a joint press release it issued back in late 2013 with Irvine, CA-based Biolase (NASDAQ: BIOL) which makes lasers for dental care and surgery. At the time, the two companies said they were working on improvements in cataract removal surgery. Biolase’s “atraumatic cutting technology” would be mounted on Auris’s “robotic microsurgical system designed specifically for ophthalmic surgery,” the partners said.

“We evaluated a variety of advanced cutting technologies for use in our robotic cataract-removal system,” said Moll in the joint press release. “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.”

At the time, the companies said they were “in the feasibility and prototyping phase.”

Schummers declined to comment on whether Auris is still working with Biolase.

Auris, which lists its staff size on LinkedIn in the range of 50 to 200 people, moved this year from an office building in Redwood City to 125 Shoreway Road in San Carlos. That building is zoned for office and R&D use by biotechnology, medical device and clean technology companies, according to real estate site Loopnet.

While Auris isn’t revealing much about its products in development, its fundraising may signal a growing interest in robotic surgery companies among investors. The Auris board includes Ajay Royan, co-founder with Peter Thiel of Mithril Capital Management and currently Mithril’s managing general partner. Royan was also the co-founder of Breakout Labs, another entity backed by Thiel.

Also on the board is Peter Hebert, co-founder in 2000 of Lux Capital, and Dr. Bijan Salehizadeh, an independent board member who is managing director and co-founder of NaviMed Capital, and is a former general partner at Highland Capital. Of course, holding a board seat doesn’t necessarily mean that an investment firm has put money into a startup.

Prior to his work with Auris, Moll co-founded Hansen Medical and Origin Medsystems, which was acquired by Eli Lilly in 1992 and later operated within Guidant Corp. Moll was the medical director of the surgical device division at Guidant until late 1995.

Although the technology for robot assisted surgery can be traced back to the 1940s with the development of “remote manipulators” for such chores as handling toxic wastes, the technique still hasn’t seen a meteoric rise in recent decades in spite of technology advances.

Critics are still wondering whether the cost of robotic surgery equipment can be justified by results, especially at smaller hospitals. And a study at Columbia University concluded in 2014 that complications can be greater than with minimally invasive surgery conducted by surgeons, the Wall Street Journal reported.

But that hasn’t stopped companies from jumping into the field. Research Triangle Park, NC-based TransEnterix (NYSE: TRXC), which has developed its own robot-assisted surgery technology, recently raised $50 million. This week, it announced its acquisition of the surgical robotics division of Italian company SOFAR. The cash and stock deal is valued at $99.8 million.