Robotic surgery group CMR is calling for more UK support for high-tech manufacturing

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The chief executive of $3 billion medical technology start-up CMR Surgical has urged the UK government to do more to support high-tech manufacturing as it prepares to open a new factory outside of Cambridge this year open.

Per Vegard Nerseth, chief executive of the surgical robot maker, said he had told Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the UK will lose investment in manufacturing unless it offers more incentives and makes it an attractive place for talented workers to come on the whole world.

CMR Surgical raised $600 million last year at a $3 billion valuation from investors including Japanese conglomerate SoftBank. The aim is to take action against the dominant player, the US company Intuitive Surgical. Sales of CMR’s Versius robotic surgery system rose 300 percent last year.

Nerseth said the UK wants to help the company set up a factory but there is little support from central government as most initiatives are regional.

“There were significantly more journeys from other parts of Europe to get us there than here in the UK,” he said.

But he said CMR Surgical chose the UK because it was important to have its facilities close to its designers, who are based where the company was founded in Cambridge.

The new factory, in the Cambridgeshire town of Ely, will employ up to 200 skilled workers producing robotic systems that assist in keyhole surgery for hundreds of procedures including urology and gynaecology. The production expansion will be overseen by Chief Operations Officer Barrington D’Arcy, who previously engineered manufacturing at rocket company SpaceX.

Nerseth fears that Brexit will make the UK a less attractive place to study and lose the advantage of keeping foreign students working.

He added that Brexit has also increased the time it takes for paperwork to be completed at the border, with some processes that would previously have taken two or three days now taking fourteen days.

According to analytics firm Verified Market Research, the global robotic surgery market is worth about $6 billion and growing at about 20 percent per year. However, with robotic surgery accounting for only about 3 percent of all surgeries, and an even smaller proportion in Europe, Nerseth believes CMR is well positioned.

“There’s a huge growth opportunity that answers a little bit how a smaller UK company that’s been very successful can compete against big players in the market: because there’s such a demand,” he said.

CMR launched its first product in the second half of 2019 and went from a “wooden prototype to surgery on the first patient within five years,” he said.

But it had only sold a handful of systems before the outbreak of Covid-19, affecting its ability to sell to hospitals busy fighting the pandemic and forcing it to adapt, for example by conducting more distance training.

Now, CMR is juggling supply chain issues, including global shortages of electronics like chips. “We have a relatively short horizon as to how long we can continue without interruption,” he said. “That short horizon has been there for the last 18 months, so we could do it.”

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