Democratizing Surgery: Verb Surgical Inc – A Revolution is Born


When the impossible is dreamed, it might just happen. Then a revolution is born.


I was working as a marketing director at Mazor Robotics while we were fighting on the front lines against traditional surgery and for “surgical robotics.”


And then something happened that would change everything. Information was released about the partnership of Johnson and Johnson’s Ethicon with Google’s Verily Life Science to form a surgical robotics company.


A surgical heavyweight married to a technology heavyweight had potential that few can imagine; a hybrid stronger than either alone.


And thus, Verb Surgical was born.


Having an announcement like this added momentum to what all of us in the surgical robotics industry were trying to accomplish.


Months passed and rumors started to fly about what might be coming out of Verb Surgical.


I checked into it and what I found gave me goosebumps.

How Verb Surgical defines “Robot”

“Robotic surgery units available on the market right now are not technically ‘robots,’ all that is is an extension of the physician’s eyes and hands.” ~Verb Surgical


What Verb’s engineers are building goes much deeper than just what we’ve come to expect from robotics.

Verb wants to transform technology with the promise of advancing the standard of care in all areas. Their vision for surgical robotics is to evolve surgery.


Verb Surgical will look to implement a “‘transformative agenda’ in the field of robotics,” with the goal of “democratizing surgery.”


When you read between the lines, you will find that Verb wants to start a revolution.

General Questions from a General Surgeon

“I don’t understand what they mean by that.”


My father is a classic general surgeon. Like most general surgeons his age, he’s “retired” from surgery, but still works at the hospital as a medical director. This was his response to hearing that Verb was looking to “democratize surgery”.


I explained to him that “democratizing surgery” was a focus on business model disruption, not just a technological disruption caused by improving on existing robotic platforms.


Me: “They want to change the healthcare system overall,”

Dad: “Ok, but how?”

Me:”Bring down cost of surgery and make it available everywhere, not just first-world places and big cities. Any surgeon anywhere will be able to do the complex cases that only a few can do today.”

Dad:”What if they’re not interested?”

Me: **Silence**

Me: “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t they be?”

Dad:”Well, I remember when bariatric surgery came to our city. I was approached, and I thought it was great, but it wasn’t something I was interested in doing.”

Me: “What about something else that you were interested in eventually?”

Dad: “Well I remember the day we heard about Lap Chole. When we heard about it we just laughed and said, ’What the hell is that?!’ We’re not used to removing a gallbladder without opening the belly. Doing it through a small incision, with cameras?”

Dad: **Smiling** “But when we were told more about it over time, we understood. Then we saw a few surgeons starting to do it, and then it took off.”


Surgeons, especially general surgeons, have traditionally been more conservative when it comes to any new technology adoption into the medical field.


Verb CEO Scott Huennekens admits that their path to change isn’t always a smooth one:


“Any time you have an established market, there are friction points as it evolves.”


Except Verb isn’t inventing a platform for the current market. They’re creating an entirely new market.


Surgery 4.0

  • Surgery 1.0: Open surgery.
  • Surgery 2.0: Introduction to minimally invasive surgery.
  • Surgery 3.0: First generation surgical robotics.
  • Surgery 4.0 Enabling of a digital surgical platform, coupled with robots.

This is where things start to become interesting.


Verb Rips a Hole in the Surgical Universe

Al and Laura Ries’ famous work, 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, and its companion the 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, a company must focus on owning a word in a prospect’s mind through branding. This is typically done through publicity, not advertising. In the age of the internet, brands are born, not made.


Publicity is a powerful tool, but sooner or later a brand outlives its publicity potential.

This process normally goes through two distinct phases:


Phase 1: Introduction of the category.

Phase 2: The rise of the company that pioneered the new category.


Verb Surgical is in Phase 1. The question is  “What comes next?”


The Surgical Robotics Market

Intuitive Surgical started the conversation about surgical robots and thus, owns the words in our minds. Their da Vinci robot was a major innovation, allowing surgeons to be more precise with their movements. Other emerging companies owned their own words in the industry. For example, Mazor Robotics is associated with the words “robotic spine surgery.”


Here is what the surgical robotics category looks like today:


(Note* If you don’t see your company here, then your marketing department needs to do a better job getting into my mind.)


Verb Surgical does have some work to do in order to grow to the size of Intuitive Surgical in the market.


Leading a New Revolution

The nature of revolutions is that they destroy the perfect and enable the impossible. – Seth Godin


A couple decades ago, our industry held rewards for even the slightest progress in technology. Surgeons tried new things and hospitals paid high prices for better patient care. Today, it’s not just about the outcomes. Reduced costs are the greater consideration.


Verb is trying to change that.


But change is hard. Verb wants to bring down costs, and to give surgeons the technology and empower them to perform the most complex surgery.


How do you go about doing it?

By making technology available across the globe.


This is how Verb is trying to democratize surgery.


Something like that is impossible.


Until it’s not.


LAW of ADVERTISING-PHASE 1: The Birth of a New Category

According to Verb Surgical, they are not a robotics company. So what are they? They are developing a robot and everyone is waiting to see it.


In order to lead a revolution, you must violently step into a liberated future.


Phase One: the introduction of the category


Verb will be at the forefront of the age of surgical democracy. This is still ambiguous to surgeons, most of whom share my father’s way of seeing the world of surgery. However, this is what is exciting to my generation, the revolutionaries.


Leader of the New Surgical World

If done properly, the launch of Verb Surgical in a few years could completely change the landscape of surgery.


It shouldn’t be done in the same way a procedure like Lap Chole was introduced, with a few surgeons adopting, and then more following suit.


This introduction should be done in such a way that it acts like a vacuum, drawing other robotics companies to its side. Those who do not evolve and adapt to this new kind of surgery would quickly die out, ala Darwinism.

Phase 2 concerns the rise of the company that pioneered the new category.


(Strictly for the purpose of paying homage to medicine and the naming of theories after oneself, we shall call this the “Khateeb Category Wormhole.”)


As other companies pass through the wormhole and emerge on the other side, this will push the category pioneer (in this case, Verb Surgical) up the adoption curve and validate the category. This happened with Intuitive Surgical in the industry of surgical robotics. Netflix is an example with video streaming, as is the iPhone with smart phones.


If they work with this in mind, and lay the subconscious groundwork, Verb Surgical will have massive momentum going into their launch in a couple years. And once they’ve done that, they can focus on the law of the word. Once a word is associated with a brand, it’s almost impossible for a competitor to create a comparable association.


“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” – Albert Einstein

Down the Wormhole

What word will Verb Surgical be claiming? I believe it will be pushing the industry toward embracing the phrase “digital surgery. When I talk about video streaming, what do you think about? When you hear about free two-day shipping on purchases, what is your first thought? The goal will be for Verb Surgical to claim digital surgery, and in the process, change the industry.


Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events, not of words. Trust movement. ~Alfred Adler


Riding the Market Wave

If Verb Surgical can create a strong enough mass movement amongst surgeons, it will bring the other robotics companies through the wormhole after it. Phase 2 of the Law of Advertising has shown that historically, time gives rise to the company that pioneered a new category. How is this done? Once the other robotic companies begin to evolve into digital surgery, their collective force with push Verb forward.


People (and companies) act to avoid losses, as economics and decision theory have taught us. Once companies in the industry start seeing the waves that Verb Surgical is making, they will start jumping on the bandwagon toward digital surgery as loss aversion is a strong cognitive bias. When a new startup startup threatens larger players (Medtronic, Zimmer Biomet, and Globus, Brainlab) by producing tools and implants, they will join the movement, pushing Verb Surgical even further forward.


Digital Surgery will be happening in the near future of medical technology, but it’s on Verb’s shoulders what they will become of that term. It can either result in a complete shift in the way surgery is done (like robotics), or it can become a simple fad with no value (like surgery’s most expensive joke: laser spine surgery).

What is Verb About?

Verb: a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, and forming the main part of the predicate of a sentence, such as hear, become, happen.


Verb, the company, is about action, and that is why it chose its name. They want to take actions that change the world.


“What better word than ‘verb?’” ~CEO Scott Huennekens

Actions Speak Louder than Attitudes

Dr. Fisayo Ositelu, a dear friend and intellectual sparring partner, was one of Nigeria’s top students when he was accepted to study Molecular and Cellular Biology at John Hopkins University. When discussing the psychology behind marketing, he added this valuable insight, “Omar, too much of marketing today focuses on just the attitude. What is more valuable is focusing on driving action.”


This illuminates a key piece of the Verb marketing strategy. Changing attitude is important, but action must also be taken to engrain that newly formed attitude. According to Dr. Ositelu, “Action changes attitude faster than attitude changes action.”


Dr. Oitelu’s four main elements:


  • Individual Motivation: Is the surgeon motivated?
  • Social Norms: What will others think? Do the surgeon’s social norms encourage this action?
  • Ability: Does the surgeon have the ability to take on this action? Can they afford to?
  • Environment: Is the surgeon’s environment optimized to enable this action?


As an example: Dr. Ositelu enabled the action of working out by addressing these four components.


  • He exchanged his work backpack for a gym duffel bag, where he puts his laptop and office materials along with his gym clothes.
  • He selected a gym right next to his work where he will consciously see a large reminder of his adopted action.
  • At the gym, he sees others like him engaged in this social norm, except in a new environment.
  • Everything was optimized to enable the momentum of the newly adopted attitude and ensure the action was taken.


Taking this idea a step further, when Verb goes to “democratize surgery,” the company must look into the question of “what actions do we want surgeons to take?”


Though the Verb Surgical technology won’t launch until 2020, the groundworks needs to start today. Will this involve leveraging the Johnson & Johnson/Google brands? Or perhaps they will utilize current surgeon influencers to educate the market on what “democratizing surgery” means.


These are good, but tiny, pieces to a larger strategy that needs to happen.

Pre-suading Surgeons Before Persuading Them

Famous consumer psychologist, Dr. Robert Cialdini, published Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade this past September. The basic idea of pre-suading is that it is possible to move recipients into agreement with a message before they actually experience it. There are marketers that have already put Cialdini’s pre-suading into practice with solid results.


Pre-suasion works by adding the dimension of time to the process of influence. It states that there is a period of time before persuasion occurs. The mind can subconsciously accept information during this time, called the “privileged moment for change.”


The key is making sure the focus of surgeons is initially on concepts that are associated with the yet-to-be-released information. Accomplishing this involves social psychology tactics that are difficult to pull off.

Readied. Aim. Fire!


“The readiness is all.” – Shakespeare


Mental activity doesn’t just fire when ready; it fires when readied by external stimulation. Once Verb Surgical readies the minds of the surgeons during the privileged moment, the company will acquire influence that non-linked concepts cannot match.


Whether you like it or not, a similar strategy can be seen with Trump’s political upset in 2016. I’ve dissected this in a past article (*Please note, I am not associated with any political party. I’m just an observer of the American political system).

Sparking Action and Lighting Behavior

Verb Surgical is ripe for the pre-suading process. The Verb Surgical name happens to be brilliantly picked. We can see this in Intuitive Surgical’s company. They were the first robotic system on the market and they wanted surgeons to engage with their robot as though it was an extension of them. It wasn’t foreign in that using a robot is “intuitive.”


The key is to focus your audience initially on the concept that is associative with the yet-to-be encountered information.

Provoking Revolution and Changing Culture

One thing I noticed while devouring “Pre-suasion” that surprised me more than anything else, was Cialdini’s revealing of the seventh principle: Unity. Cialdini defines “Unity” as a shared identity.  When you topple the status quo and start a revolution, you change culture. If Verb wants to make history, it needs to start playing a tune that has a rhyming resonance that speaks to a specific type of surgeon. That will involve a marketing strategy that channels a mass desire among surgeons and then directing it in unity.



This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent those of Omar M. Khateeb and not those of his employer or any other company.



Omar M. Khateeb is an unorthodox marketing leader with a background in science and medicine. He publishes an article each week on his LinkedIn account. Interests include sales psychology, neuromarketing, and self-development practices. He consumes 2-3 books each week in his eternal search for knowledge. Check out his virtual bookshelf here to find your next great read, and connect with him on LinkedIn, Twitter, or SnapChat.




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