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Simulating surgeries to save lives

Lebanese entrepreneur Jean Nehme’s Touch Surgery project could improve medical care

by Livia Murray

Entrepreneur: Jean Nehme
Country: United Kingdom
Company: Touch Surgery
Industry: Healthcare/Tech
Founded: 2013
Funds raised in 2013: $1.5 million
Number of employees: 15

Jean Nehme, a Lebanese expat living in London, is one of a team of four who have devised an application that simulates surgeries. Nehme, Andre Chow, Advait Gandhe, and Sanjay Purkayastha developed Touch Surgery to enable surgeons and surgeons-in-training to perform operations virtually in 3D before they are faced with the real thing.

The idea, Nehme explains, came from the desire to improve surgical training and the preparedness of surgeons before they enter the operation room. “I think there’s a big misconception that we all practice on people who donate [their] bodies [to science]. You don’t always get the opportunity to practice before,” says Nehme. “Training on patients is not safe.”

Even experienced professionals can benefit from the app, he explains. Surgery being a complex and changing field, surgeons need to stay on top of medical developments to know the latest, most effective procedures and techniques or simply for the sake of refreshing their memories before performing an operation they haven’t done in a while.

Cognitive task simulation

The application breaks down complicated procedures into individual steps and stops at important decision points. The platform teaches through cognitive task simulation, which is based on the idea that an operation’s success stems from a combination of sound surgical decision-making and technical skill.

“It’s really about training your brain,” says Nehme. Decision making, he explains, is not always explicitly taught to surgeons in training, an aspect they are trying to emphasize in the app. “When you’re trying to follow a surgeon … a lot of their knowledge is so automated that they forget to express all the basic things,” says Nehme, who compares it to learning how to drive a car when a driving instructor “wouldn’t tell you how to get in the car.”

To assess the surgeon’s progress, the app collects data for every surgery undertaken. According to Nehme, they collect over a million “data events” – virtual surgical maneuvers – a week. The data can be then used to chart the surgeon’s learning curve.

Surgical heat map

The team is using a surgical heat map to identify the surgeries to develop by order of importance. This enables them to chart which surgeries are both the most common and the most vital. “While we are picking things that are common, we are trying to teach things that are really making a difference,” says Nehme.

They started with orthopedics because of its “big procedural market,” and are now moving into general surgery. They have released an operation for removing the gallbladder, a common operation,“but if it goes wrong, it can really affect the person’s life,” says Nehme. They currently have developed over twenty surgeries.

Jean Nehme is co-founder of the company

[/media-credit]Jean Nehme is co-founder of the company

Touch Surgery has partnered with many large institutions such as Duke, Stanford and New York University to design the various types of surgeries. They are currently working with surgeons at the University of Toronto and plan to work with Harvard as well.

B2B model 

Traction-wise, the app has seen 120,000 downloads, mostly in the United States. They raised $1.5 million last year in a seed round with investments from Chicago Capital Partners and European venture capital firms Ballpark Ventures and Balderton Capital. They are currently working to close a round of Series A funding.

The app is free and the team intends on keeping it free, but they are toying with various ideas for business models related to data collection. They currently envisage a business-to-business (B2B) model in the academic, medical and insurance sectors. The app has also attracted the attention of medical device companies, who are interested in having a platform that trains surgeons to use their equipment. Likewise, insurance companies could make use of the data collected to improve calculations for surgeons’ premiums.

With a few ideas for business models down the road, the team is focused first and foremost on traction. “Revenue has never been a [key performance indicator],” says Nehme. Though he admits, “we are transitioning into a company with business motives.”

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Livia Murray

Livia covers business, finance and economic policy for Executive.

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