The Silicon Review
“We want nothing less than perfect outcomes.”
Around 26 percent of all medical errors are preventable surgical issues, which cost around $36 billion each year. By incorporating Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence into robotic-assisted surgery, Boston-based Activ Surgical is committed to improving every surgeon’s capabilities and dramatically reduce these error rates.
Activ Surgical is a digital surgery company, dedicated to transforming the collective surgical experience by leveraging emerging technologies and data into insights that make world-class surgery accessible for all. The company is currently conducting trials of its first product, ActivSight(TM) Intelligent Light, with major hospital systems across the United States and Europe.
The Silicon Review reached out to Tom Calef, Chief Technology Officer of Activ Surgical. Here’s what he had to say.
Q. Tell us about your professional journey so far. What marked the beginning of your success, and what do you regard as your greatest achievements throughout your journey?
Engineering has been a wonderful career for me because it has allowed me to address some of the world’s most complex problems and contribute to solutions that improve people’s lives. Over the past 10 years, I have been working in surgical robotics, which offers tremendous opportunities to improve patient care.
I started at Hatch Technology, where I developed automation systems for the defense, automotive, and consumer electronics industries. Later, I was a systems engineering manager at RTS Life Sciences (now Brooks), where I helped develop robotic platforms that support drug development.
I went on to become director of Advanced Robotics at Medrobotics, where I led the development team for the first flexible surgical robotics platform – one of my greatest career achievements. My team designed highly articulated surgical robotics and was recognized with several product design and innovation awards.
This led me to Activ Surgical, which is developing machine learning and augmented reality technologies to advance surgical care. By delivering real-time visualizations and other unique data to surgeons, we give them more information to perform the most complex surgeries Around 400,000 Americans die every year from avoidable medical complications, which is unacceptable. We want to be part of the solution.
While the most experienced surgeons cannot be present in every procedure, their talents can be. Activ Surgical’s technology is designed to transform massive amounts of intra-operative data into powerful, real-time insights. It will help surgeons view critical physiological structures and functions, such as blood flow, that cannot be seen with the naked eye in the operating room today.
Developing complex surgical devices is a challenging profession, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. I just enjoy the development process: managing world-class engineering teams, developing innovative technologies, and applying for multiple patents and regulatory approvals. Each step is about problem-solving and making systems better for both clinicians and the patients they serve.
Q. CTO is the design and creative force behind the success of a company’s technology platform. What are your major roles and responsibilities at Activ Surgical?
At Activ Surgical, I lead a talented team of world-class scientists and engineers. My job is to be a force multiplier. Our team carries out research that advances surgical technology innovations and then relays that information into product development. We are all incredibly passionate about inventing technology that changes people’s lives.
We are laser-focused on developing surgical tools that improve patient care, increase safety, and help make surgeons smarter and more efficient.
Q. Tell us what inspires you and your employees to innovate. And how do you maintain a balance in your personal and professional life?
Virtually everyone will have surgery or care for someone who has had surgery. But all too often, patients experience post-surgical complications – 30, 60, or 90 days after their procedures. We believe that giving surgeons better “vision” will dramatically decrease these problems.
The driving motivator for me and my team is to translate this good idea into an actual platform that will help surgeons perform their procedures more effectively and reduce the number of complications. This could, in turn, open up options for high-risk patients—who might not otherwise be surgical candidates—to potentially lifesaving procedures. We want nothing less than perfect outcomes.
Work-life balance is a critical part of being an effective manager. I find my zen while boating and fishing with my wife, Auna, and our three children. Interestingly, I think my role as a medical device engineer makes me a better boater. Boats are machines that require regular maintenance to ensure safety. I try to approach it with the same care and attention to detail I bring to the office.
Q. Who is your role model and how has the individual inspired you to culminate into the inspiring leader you are today?
I am a big fan of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, who routinely innovated through insight and hard work. But for
me, Nicola Tesla leads the pack because his inventions were so practical. Our daily lives are constantly enriched by the hundreds of technologies Tesla invented or predicted – remote controls, neon, and fluorescent lights, wireless transmissions, computers and smartphones, lasers, x-rays, robotics, and alternating current. Imagine the world without these. Tesla did that for us.
Tell us what’s next for your company.
Activ Surgical is continuing to advance our surgical visualization technology (ActivSight™ Intelligent Light) at pilot hospitals, gathering feedback and refining the product. We are currently pursuing a CE mark in Europe, and plan to make ActivSight commercially available in 2023.
We will also continue to identify new applications for our platform. As Activ Surgical’s technology is integrated into increasingly sophisticated systems, it will empower robotic systems to see better than the human eye, reducing surgical workloads, accelerating procedures, and reducing errors. We are also striving for semi-autonomous and surgeon-collaborative capabilities to achieve even better outcomes.
Q. How do you see Activ changing in five years, and how do you see yourself creating that change?
Activ Surgical aims to build a connected surgical intelligence network that will give surgeons access to visualizations and data from thousands of procedures. The platform being developed will help train AI models that deliver insights from some of the world’s top surgeons to surgical suites around the world. This will enhance patient safety and ensure world-class surgical care is equitable and available to everyone.
Q. Is there anything else you want us to highlight that we might have missed?
I always want to give back to the field. One of my great joys is mentoring students, and I have coached my local high school’s FIRST robotics team for more than 25 years. These kids are so smart and motivated. I am excited by their passion.
Tom Calef | CTO
Tom Calef is a highly accomplished medical roboticist and seasoned engineering leader who has delivered breakthrough innovations in surgical robotics. Previously, he was the director of Advanced Robotics at Medrobotics, where he led the development and release of the first flexible surgical robotics platform, grew the engineering team from scratch, and guided many surgical robotics products through 510k clearance. He has a B.S. in Computer Engineering and an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Massachusetts.