New robotics ideas for medicine: These are the winners of the KUKA Innovation Award

The KUKA Innovation Award 2020 has been presented: a young Italian research team convinced the jury and won this year’s “Medical Robotics Challenge” – and with it 20,000 euros in prize money. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, everything was a little different this year.

It was an unusual prize-giving ceremony that the audience at the KUKA Innovation Award 2020 experienced. Instead of a full booth and a festive handover, the ceremony took place as a video broadcast due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Kristina Wagner, Vice President Corporate Research at KUKA, guided through the video-call of the awards ceremony at virtual.MEDICA. “Everything is a little different this year. Just when we had sent the robots to the five finalists at the beginning of the year, the coronavirus pandemic began, and the teams had to realize their applications under difficult conditions,” said Wagner. In spite of all the difficulties, all the finalists had shown impressive concepts around this year’s “Medical Robotics Challenge“.

High-intensity focused ultrasound surgery with robotics

In the end, Team HIFUSK from the Scuola Superiore St’Anna in Italy convinced the jury with an innovative concept for a non-invasive surgical procedure using state-of-the-art technology. The cheers of the winners were great: “We are very happy,”,said the Italian researchers. “Above all, we are happy that our idea, our project was recognized by the jury. This is the greatest satisfaction and stimulation for the future.”

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The winning team developed a non-invasive surgical procedure based on high-intensity focused ultrasound and the KUKA lightweight robot LBR Med. This combination enables precise surgical treatment without incisions, anesthesia or ionization energy. Robotic control and machine learning ensure a safe procedure, even if target movements change during therapy.

The winning team HIFUSK with their application

After the award ceremony, we spoke with Andrea Mariani from HIFUSK:              

Congratulations on your victory! Can you briefly explain your innovative concept with which you convinced the jury so much?

“Our platform is the marriage of robotics and focused ultrasound for a non-invasive surgical treatment. Robotics is here exploited to ensure a safe, repeatable, accurate treatment. Beyond the technical implementations, we wanted to create a platform that is as physician friendly as possible. The usability of a system is an aspect that is sometimes left out. We tried to develop a platform where all the components are integrated and connected with a user interface that the physician can simply interact with, enabling functionalities and changing therapeutic settings. This is fundamental when you want to introduce a new technology and have such a technology accepted in the clinical practice.”

This year, things were a bit different because of the coronavirus pandemic: what were the biggest challenges?

“COVID-19 was a huge challenge: we received the KUKA robot the week before lockdown. A lockdown that lasted for more than 3 months here in Italy. This meant that we had just few months to carry out the project and to integrate our technology. In the research world, remote working is almost impossible: we need robots, we need to touch the technology and be in the lab to carry out our research. But planning our work during the lockdown, thinking about every aspect of our application, allowed us to be prepared when coming back to lab and to more easily develop our application. It was an important “life/work lecture” that this experience taught us.”

Would you recommend other researchers and young entrepreneurs to participate in the Innovation Award? If yes, why?

“Definitely yes, I mean: we had the possibility to work with a cutting edge robot like the KUKA LBR Med that perfectly matches the requirements of our application since it’s flexible, sensitive and certified for integration into medical products. And we also had the chance to receive training and support from the KUKA experts throughout the whole project. Together with this, the KUKA Innovation Award gave to our team and our idea great visibility: this could be a great added value for our next steps in terms of fundraising towards industrialization.”

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