An interview with French robotic TKR startup CEO, Sophie Cahen

Transformers, Rise of the Orthobots! An interview with Ganymed’s CEO; Sophie Cahen (LinkedIn Pulse interview by Henry Norton)

Last week, myself and Nadia Djema had the pleasure of speaking with one of the talented female leaders making an impact within surgical robotics; Sophie Cahen, CEO and founder of French start-up, Ganymed Robotics. Sophie is undeniably a powerhouse in her field, recently winning Woman Entrepreneur of the Year 2021, as well as being quadrilingual with a master’s degree in Engineering, on top of having an INSEAD MBA with 10 years of international work experience across 4 continents. It was apparent throughout our conversation that she is an engaging leader with immeasurable enthusiasm and excitement for Ganymed and its employees. The new medical device company founded in 2018, is developing the next generation of robotic assistance technologies for orthopaedic surgery and their mission is to improve patient outcome, surgeon experience, and overall efficiency of care delivery for its target indications, and I see these factors contributing to Ganymed becoming a leader in the field.

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Based in Paris, Ganymed Robotics currently employs 20 people who develop a proprietary technology platform combining computer vision, a branch of artificial intelligence, and mechatronics, in close collaboration with world-class clinicians and advisors. The company has filed for 6 patent families since its founding and keeps filing for IP protection at a strong pace. The first application is a robotic surgical assistant for knee arthroplasties, a common and fast-growing intervention associated with high dissatisfaction rates of above 20%. Having won national and international innovation awards, such as I-Lab, French Tech Emergence, Deep Tech Pioneer, EIT Health, and Wilco, Ganymed Robotics intends to progressively deploy its technology to address several other orthopaedics indications.

Knee arthroplasty is an extremely widespread surgical intervention for the treatment of arthritis, concerning more than 2 million patients worldwide each year, still associated with high dissatisfaction rates of above 20%. With tens of millions of patients expected in the coming decade, total knee arthroplasty has become a major public health issue. Ganymed Robotics’ proprietary technology aims to drastically improve patient outcomes and surgeon experience through higher precision and reduced interventions’ duration.

All technologically assisted knee arthroplasties today involve a complex, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous registration step that requires physical bone palpation and the insertion of bone pins into the patient’s tibia and femur. Functional and systemic tests have demonstrated the efficacity of Ganymed Robotics’ contactless registration solution, with advanced computer vision for scene perception, both instantaneous and riskless for the patient. This innovative feature is driving a revolution for computer-assisted orthopaedics and represents a major milestone in the deployment of Ganymed Robotics’ vision to simplify surgeons’ jobs while leaving them in full control of the surgery. 

Ganymed Robotics plans to initiate regulatory processes for its knee arthroplasty solution in 2021 and progressively deploy its technology platform to additional orthopaedic indications. Initially, though, I was intrigued to hear some more about the woman behind the company and what led her to work within the sector.

“I’m an engineer by training. I graduated from a French University and then I did some scientific research in the US before working in Finance for three years – partially in France and partially in the middle east. Then I returned to France and designed aircraft engines for two years between France and Germany. Following this, I did an MBA at INSEAD in France and Singapore. After this, I knew I loved leading technical teams and had a very strong appetite for risk and challenge. So, coming back to France in 2018, I was lucky enough to have connections that allowed me to meet my current business partners, two of which are leading, high-volume surgeons with extensive research publications and deep industry and product design experience. Another is a former founder and CEO of Aldebaran Robotics which was a world-leading humanoid robotics company. 

The rest is history! We met, I went to the OR, and eventually, we agreed that there was a lot to be done in the field that our joint skills and appetite could bring to fruition.”

Can you provide our readers with a brief overview of Ganymed’s Surgical Robotic assistant and the benefits it provides for patients and surgeons?

“So today there are two known ways to perform surgery in large joint replacements: conventional and technology assisted, Conventional instrumentation leads to highly variable outcomes and overall unsatisfaction rates of above 20%. All technologically assisted knee arthroplasties today involve a complex, time-consuming, and a potentially dangerous registration step that requires physical bone palpation and the insertion of bone pins into the patient’s tibia and femur. We get rid of the disadvantages, hassle, and risks of both techniques through a unique patented, technological platform combining computer vison and advanced mechatronics.

First our system detects and locates bones without the use of invasive trackers. It then guides the surgeon to the right place in a collaborative manner. So basically, we see ourselves as the next generation in orthopaedics for surgical robotics. The Surgical Robotic assistant provides advanced computer vision for scene perception, which is both instantaneous and riskless for the patient. This feature is a revolution for computer-assisted orthopaedics and represents a major milestone in the deployment of our vision to simplify surgeons’ jobs while leaving them in full control of the surgery.”

How is Ganymed working to address unmet needs in the field?

“Outcomes are critical, so we aim to provide something less invasive, but more precise. What matters as well for us is efficiency, how long the surgery takes. The turnaround time for the Operating Room, are more people needed in the room, how much sterilisation do you need, etc. When you talk to surgeons they talk a lot about useability, so how easy the device is to use also matters a lot. The last aspect that we bring to the game is affordability and market access. So how much sense does your product make from a medical economy perspective? Previous generations made very little, so they are known to be expensive marketing tools for hospitals and surgeons. We very much believe in an era where collaborative robotics brings value to everybody and not just the top line of hospitals.”

Congratulations on being awarded the 2.5M grant from the European Commission – how does Ganymed plan on putting this funding to use?

“We aim to finalise developments, design freeze and obtain market clearance in Europe and the US. We have an ongoing clinical trial for the computer vision software. Although we’re called Ganymed robotics, we’re as much a software and AI company as we’re a robotics company.

 This money, which comes with up to ten million euros equity investment, will help us access the market.”

What are some valuable lessons you’ve learned so far in your time as CEO?

“I think when you start as a founder/CEO as I did, you are responsible for absolutely everything. Whenever you can add value, by placing the call, interviewing the candidate, writing, or editing a document, delivering a pitch, emptying the trash, you’re basically responsible for it all.

After a while, this is just not sustainable. We’re a team of 20 people now and growing. So now if the value I bring by doing something is marginal, or if anyone else could deliver that particular task, then I don’t do it. I need to focus my time and energy on things that will be transformational for the company. So that involves developing and growing my market acumen, high-level hiring, communication and visibility, fundraising, company culture, and employee wellbeing. Of course, clinician engagement is something I also love to do. We all go to the OR, and I love to spend time in operating rooms, but I think in terms of actual tasks, you need to shrink your execution perimeter and hire professionals to do it. I’m not an R&D manager, a Quality and regulatory manager, or a clinical specialist. So, these are all verticals I need to professionalise, and my job is to inspire enough trust to seasoned industry leaders to have them want to join the company. This has proven successful so far, and we have hired a former global director at Zimmer Biomet, with more high calibre recruits to come.”

How do you help your team to thrive/ how do you get the most out of your team?

“It’s going to sound cheesy, but I really love my team. I’m lucky to work with people who are so motivated and thrilled by the project, who show such ambition, and excitement at the challenges that we face that it’s exhilarating. So sometimes I’m the one who needs to say “take a long weekend or a Monday off” because there’s just so much energy in the company. The challenge for me is to channel all this energy in the right direction and to “care at scale”. Caring means how you act, talk, where you allocate your time, and where you allocate resources when you don’t have much. Ganymed has had a generous policy with its employees quite early on, and recently we asked all the employees to vote on their choice of health insurance provided by the company. Letting people have their say in things like these, and many others, matters.”

Who has been the biggest advocate/mentor in your career?

“I’ve been lucky to have quite a few of them. Definitely my two first bosses. One of which was when I was working in private equity in France. He is now a significant investor at Ganymed. He has professionally invested in dozens of companies, many of which in healthcare, as founder and chairman of one of Europe’s most successful PE fund, so both his trust and advice mean a lot. Also, my boss when I was working for the French Development Agency in Amman, Jordan. He taught me by example about charismatic management, how you grow your team by showing them a better way of doing things rather than telling them off. Also, of course, my partner and family have been major support through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. You talk to a lot of entrepreneurs so I’m sure you know that it can be a brutal rollercoaster.”

What do you think we should be doing to encourage the younger generation to consider a career path in Med-Tech/ Surgical Robotics?

“I think there’s a lot in the pipeline. As you know, France has a very fertile ground for surgical robotics. We have Robocath for cardiovascular, we have Keranova, Acusurgical, and many more excellent surgical technology companies. I can feel a growing interest in the field from students and young professionals. Last week I received a delegation of students from X-HEC, Frances’s best business and engineering school to talk about Surgical Robotics alongside the CEO of Robeauté, a deep tech start-up building micro-robots for the brain. It’s a matter of engaging with them and showing them that the field is full of the most interesting challenges you can find in tech, business, and strategy, even in science, for the benefit of patients. It is starting to show! We don’t have a full-fledged website as you may have noticed, we just have an employee page, and yet, we receive a LOT of high-quality applications. So, it’s a motivating field for young engineers for sure.”

What can we expect from Ganymed in the next five years?

“A lot! Our goal is to entirely redefine surgical robotics for joint replacement to start with. We aim to become category leaders. It’s credible enough that the European Union is willing to invest taxpayer money into the company. As CEO I’m obviously going to be biased but we will be category leaders in our field by the end of the decade. In five years, we’ll be on the market already with crazy traction from surgeons and implant companies.”

Regarding the French Surgical Robotics EcoSystem, what do you think are the main drivers/causes of France becoming a MedTech hot spot?

“There’s a combination of factors. And just like Israel but with more people, we have many great engineers and very brilliant doctors and surgeons. There is a lot of innovation that comes from France and a lot of collaboration between doctors and engineers. Ganymed has been funded by Engineers and surgeons. We have four surgeons who have personally invested their own money into the company. France’s tax system is also very supportive of innovation. If you’re starting a company in France with a lot of R&D, there are few places in the world where you would receive as much support as you do here. Typically for large projects with a long time to market and a lot of developments, it’s super helpful. The final reason is that we’re getting organised. There is a group called Med Tech in France who is representing homegrown medical device technologies, with direct access to our government. Not unrelatedly, our government just passed policies to ease market access and reimbursement here at home.”

To conclude, Ganymed has a unique approach and philosophy to Orthopaedic robotics, they are working towards providing solutions for unmet needs in orthopaedic surgery. Throughout our conversation, Sophie displayed her encouraging and perceptive approach to supporting her team, and I feel that all these qualities combined will enable Ganymed to prosper as a company. Here at RW Search, we are eager to witness Ganymed’s continual development of the next generation of robotic assistance technologies for orthopaedic surgery.