Eindhoven is accelerating medical robotics

When rainfall starts with one drop of water and then increases exponentially every second. Within how many seconds will the Johan Cruijff Arena in Amsterdam be filled with water? Maarten Steinbuch raised the question during a lecture on medical robotics, during XL Day at the Evoluon in Eindhoven. On XL Day startups pitch, investors talk, and experts share their insights. Steinbuch, professor at the Technical University of Eindhoven, has been asked to speak about robots. But first he wants his audience to experience what exponential growth is like.

The answer is 47 seconds. During exponential rainfall, the Johan Cruijff Arena will be full of water within a minute. The audience starts giggling. One attendant guessed it would take at least twenty minutes, others boldly shouted: ‘two minutes!’. It becomes more quiet when Steinbuch then calculates what that rainfall would look like. Doubling each drop means that at 46 seconds the Arena is only half full. Exponential growth appears to be difficult for the human brain to grasp.

The epicentre of Moore’s law
But it is an essential fact for everyone who is involved in high tech innovation. In this context, Moore’s law which stipulates that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit (a chip) doubles every two years due to technological progress, is also indispensable.
The epicentre of Moore's law is not in Silicon Valley, but in Eindhoven. Or actually not in Eindhoven, but in the neighbouring town of Veldhoven. With the chip machines that ASML produces here, the company has a market share of 85%. The vast majority of the chips in devices worldwide are made with a machine from Veldhoven.

The company is therefore of great importance for the development of robots, devices that exist by the grace of smart software. But before Steinbuch goes into this, he first looks at the Dutch culture of 'saying what you think'. A property that foreigners usually have to get used to. But according to the professor, our informal manners are an important factor for innovation. "The Dutch attach little value to a point of view 'because the manager says so’; we are more sensitive to the opinion of our peers. There is always room for discussion which yields the development of new ideas.”

Breeding ground for innovation
Dutch culture is therefore a breeding ground for innovation. When it comes to pitching however, we tend to be a little too introvert. Not Maarten Steinbuch. His presentation on robots is very rewarding. The audience listens attentively and raises, of course, many questions. Such as, for example, the funding of his projects. Steinbuch is silent for a moment and tells how he is regularly approached by venture capitalists. These talks are about considerable amounts of money, but also about very different approaches. Often a plan to sell the company is presented fairly quickly. "But I don't want an exit strategy”, Steinbuch continues, "I want to build a new industry in this region for the long term."

The professor talks about the medical robotic projects in which he has been involved in recent years. Innovations that started from the TU/e and were further developed in close cooperation with doctors. With Preceyes' technology, the first surgery in the world took place in 2016 in which a doctor operated in an eye with the help of a robot to restore the patient's sight. The following year, there was the world’s first super-microsurgical intervention with Microsure's ‘robot hands’. Surgeons used the device to suture vessels of only 0.3 to 0.8 mm in a patient's arm. And this year there was the RoBoSculpt, which can take over part of the surgeon's hard work during skull base operations.

World champion robot soccer
Next to the serious stuff, Steinbuch shows the audience several very entertaining videos, like the one of the RoboCup 2013, illustrating our relationship with robots. In 2013, Eindhoven was hosting the world championships in robot soccer. The video shows a room full of cheering Dutch supporters. Some being so enthusiastic that they even shout instructions at the autonomous machines. Yes, even robot soccer evokes a lot of emotions. And it seems to be a good surrogate for our world cup-less summer: the Eindhoven robotics team became world champion again this year. "We're better with robots than with humans", the professor jokes.