Using Robotics, Software, and Data to Improve Patient Outcomes

    For Smith+Nephew, the global medical technology giant, acquiring Pittsburgh-based Blue Belt Technologies in 2016 helped it secure a leading position in the fast-growing sector of robotics-assisted orthopaedic surgery. Since acquiring the local robotics firm, Smith+Nephew’s presence in the Pittsburgh region has continued to expand. Today, the company employs over 180 employees in the city. Earlier this spring, it also relocated from its offices at 2828 Liberty Avenue to The Stacks at 3 Crossings in the Strip District.


    The Stacks at 3 Crossings is a highly sustainable development with all commercial buildings designed to a minimum LEED Silver standard. The Stacks redeveloped the former Packaging Corporation of America site by reusing the warehouse bays and steel-frame structure. A 75-foot-tall stainless-steel hopper, used by PCA to facilitate box assembly, will be relocated on the site and will be uplifted to serve as a beacon across the river. A new road, Hopper Place, will extend 28th Street to the riverfront and through the development.

    Smith+Nephew, the first tenant in The Stacks, developed a world-class R&D and medical-education-training facility for robotics, tripling the floor space of their previous robotics business space. “From paper to reality, it’s been quite a journey! I’m so excited to see our team so happy and energized in this superbly designed, world-class facility!” says Wendy Joy, Facility Manager at Smith+Nephew. The new facility is a key innovation center for Smith+Nephew and offers an engaging environment for both current and prospective new employees to create next-generation surgical robotic platforms. The facility will focus on robotics and enable both support of the company’s NAVIO® Surgical System and the expansion of its Real Intelligence portfolio.

    “The Strip District is a perfect location for Smith+Nephew’s robotics business because of all of the current innovation and technology companies located here,” says Steve Grosse, Global Product Manager for Smith+Nephew. “It’s pretty amazing that, when I was growing up here in the ’90s, I would never think of coming to the Strip District to go out or even live. But with The Stacks development and all of the other riverfront development that’s been going on, it’s been really exciting. It’s definitely somewhere that our engineers enjoy working.”

    Left to right: Mara Palmer, Wendy Joy, Steve Grosse, Rich Lordo, Matt Russell, and Riddhit Mitra.

    Left to right: Mara Palmer, Wendy Joy, Steve Grosse, Rich Lordo, Matt Russell, and Riddhit Mitra.

    Richard Lordo, Director of Robotics Hardware, agrees. “This area has been designated as Robotics Row and it’s a perfect fit for us,” he says. “It certainly facilitates our ability to recruit the most talented employees by being in the Strip District. The competition in the area is actually a great thing because it draws more people to the area. We also have close proximity to university resources and major hospital systems. It’s the perfect hub for us in terms of continuing to attract the high-caliber people we want in this business.”

    Smith+Nephew’s history dates back over 150 years, after Thomas James Smith opened a small pharmacy in Hull, England, in 1856. After his death in 1896, his nephew Horatio Nelson Smith took over the management of the business—hence the name. The company was awarded a contract in 1914 to supply £350,000 of surgical and field dressings to soldiers in World War I.

    By the late 1990s, Smith+Nephew expanded into a diverse global healthcare conglomerate, producing medical devices, personal-care products, and traditional and advanced wound-care treatments. In 1998, the company restructured to focus management attention and investment on three business units—wound management, endoscopy, and orthopaedics.

    “As a whole, Smith+Nephew features a portfolio of medical devices which touches everything from orthopaedic reconstruction and sports medicine, to ear, nose, and throat, to trauma and robotics,” says Grosse. “From a diversity and full spectrum perspective, we cover a variety of different spaces in the healthcare field. Our purpose is to help restore patients to their previous self before they got injured, both physically and mentally.”

    The robotics division’s NAVIO surgical system provides robotics assistance in both total and partial knee-replacement surgery through CT-free software and a unique hand-held, robotic bone-shaping device. It is a highly portable system that can be moved freely within hospitals or ambulatory surgical centers. NAVIO brings a high degree of implant-placement accuracy, combined with attractive economics and ease of use.

    The Navio Surgical System was first used clinically in 2012.

    The Navio Surgical System was first used clinically in 2012.

    “We have the smallest footprint for an orthopaedic robotics-assisted surgery device, and it doesn’t require any preoperative CT scanning,” says Lordo. “All of the surgical planning is done in real time on the patient so the surgeon has great flexibility to decide which approach to take in replacing that patient’s knee. For example, they could go in thinking they need to do a partial knee replacement, but when they open up the patient’s knee they may see more diseased bone and decide to switch to a total knee replacement.”

    This summer, the company launched its Real Intelligence brand of enabling-technology solutions, as well as its second-generation handheld robotics platform known as the CORI® Surgical System (CORI stands for Core Of Real Intelligence). Real Intelligence will address clinical challenges through the continuum of care including patient engagement, pre-operative planning, digital and robotic surgery, post-operative assessment, and outcomes measurement. Each solution in the Real Intelligence digital ecosystem informs the next phase of treatment, and over time will allow healthcare providers to use outcomes data to better inform patient-specific treatments.

    “We focus on research and development for robotics, software, and enabling technologies,” explains Grosse. “Our focus is to build the Real Intelligence brand centered around the CORI Surgical System, which was designed and developed by our team in Pittsburgh. Currently CORI can be used in total and partial knee-replacement procedures.”

    Lordo notes that you can think about CORI as a smartphone.

    Surgeons use the CORI handpiece for Total and Partial Knee Arthroplasty.

    Surgeons use the CORI handpiece for Total and Partial Knee Arthroplasty.

    “The goal of the Pittsburgh facility is to continue to develop CORI and to have different apps and accessories that work with it such as our software for total knee arthroplasty and unicondylar knee arthroplasty. Going forward, we’re looking to expand the breadth of things that CORI can help surgeons do.”

    The main competition for Smith+Nephew on the robotics side are two large worldwide companies: Stryker and Zimmer Biomet. Stryker’s primary robotics solution is Mako SmartRobotics, which uses a large arm-based robot weighing several hundred pounds along with 3D CT-based planning software to create a personalized joint replacement surgical plan. Zimmer Biomet’s ROSA Knee system also features a large arm-based robotic system to help perform total knee-replacement surgery.

    “Other companies’ products use a large arm-based robotic system, whereas the CORI Surgical System is held in the surgeon’s hand,” says Grosse. “That’s really a key differentiator—its size, portability, and flexibility for configurations in the operating room.”

    Grosse, who previously worked for Blue Belt Technologies, is excited about the future of Smith+Nephew. “The majority of the people who worked for Blue Belt and continue to work for Smith+Nephew’s Robotics team are Pittsburgh natives,” he says. “We went to the local universities. We care about the region, and we’re excited that the hard work we’ve been able to do has helped Smith+Nephew invest in this area in technology and continues to drive a lot of the growth that we’re seeing in the Strip District right now. Our entire team is pretty proud to help be a part of that.”

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    Daniel Casciato is a full-time freelance writer and social media specialist from Pittsburgh. In addition to writing for The Strip! he writes health, legal, real estate, and technology-related articles for trade and consumer magazines and has his own copywriting business. His website is

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