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Building advanced technology—and teams—at Intuitive

Chris Carlson

How do you go from competitive “FutureCar” design to leading a team of hundreds at Intuitive’s largest business unit? For Multiport division SVP and GM Chris Carlson, an early desire to “create new things” paved the way to advancing a robotic surgery system that’s enabling surgeons to impact patients’ lives. Below, Chris explains his team’s work, his approach to building that team, and why two decades in, the people behind Intuitive’s da Vinci systems are just getting started.

What does the Multiport division do?

Intuitive is a global leader in minimally invasive care and a pioneer of robotic surgery. Our team works on the da Vinci surgical system, the company’s signature product line that launched in 2000, and is now on its fourth generation. Prostatectomy remains a prime example of the system’s utility. Back then, the procedure was typically what’s called an “open” surgery, and it could take patients weeks to recover from what was essentially surgical site access incisions, not the removal of the cancer itself. There were a few highly skilled surgeons who could perform prostate surgery laparoscopically, but because it was difficult, it was hard to scale. Da Vinci made minimally invasive surgery much more accessible to surgeons, aiming to improve the standard of care. In addition, when compared with open or laparoscopic surgery, da Vinci patients have in many but not all procedures experienced less morbidity, fewer serious complications, and/or less blood loss.

Continuous improvement is a cultural focus here that drives our innovation. Within the Multiport team we are constantly working on the next generation of da Vinci products. We just launched a new robotic stapler, for example, that’s only 8 millimeters in diameter—smaller than any other robotic stapler on the market. Our team is involved in the full life cycle of a product; we take ideas all the way from the whiteboard to the tools and processes used to manufacture them.

Tell us about your background and why you joined Intuitive.

Growing up, I was always interested in the process of creating new things. And I was especially interested in the application of technology, rather than technology on its own—I loved the idea of designing a state-of-the-art product to solve a problem. I spent a lot of time in the sciences in college; in an alternate universe I might have been a chemical engineer or computer scientist, but I was intrigued by mechanical engineering and robotics. I joined a team competing in the FutureCar Challenge, where we modified an existing vehicle to make it as fuel efficient as possible. We reskinned a Ford Taurus in carbon fiber to give it better aerodynamics, built a novel hybrid-electric powertrain, and drove it across the U.S. at 62 miles per gallon. It was a lot of fun, and it taught me how to take a big-picture design and get all the individual components working together.

That led me to Stanford’s Dynamic Design Lab, where I studied robotic systems and also spent time with the design school thinking about how to transfer what a human wants to accomplish into the technology that can make it happen. I ended up writing my thesis on car rollover prevention systems, automotive tire technology, and applications of GPS. After Stanford, I joined a company in the medical field, where I worked on a robotic system that delivered radio frequency burns to treat patients with irregular heartbeats. 

I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak—I was the kid who had a paper route and a lemonade stand—so after I left that company, I decided to co-found a company with a long-time friend, building an online, easier-to-use version of Microsoft Project. We went through the Y Combinator startup incubator, which was a great experience, and we had an interesting product. But ultimately, it wasn’t as fulfilling for us as building robots that helped patients. So we sold the company, and around that time Intuitive reached out. They invited me to work on a new project, but wouldn’t tell me what it was because of my background in medical robotics, so joining was somewhat of a leap of faith. But I knew a lot of people here, and I had a lot of respect for their work. I didn’t see it as a job opportunity so much as an educational opportunity. I just thought, “I want to learn from these people.”

Tell us about your path since joining the team.

That first project turned out to be what’s now called Ion, our endoluminal platform for lung biopsy, which had been a research project for some time within the company. Developing the technology into the Ion business and growing the team was incredibly fun and rewarding. We launched Ion a little over three years ago, and about two years ago, Intuitive’s leadership asked if I’d be interested in leading the Multiport division.

It was a big transition for me, because the Multiport team was well established and much larger in size and scope, whereas everything I’d done in my career up to that point began with 10 or 20 people, building something up from scratch. It has been a great experience so far. The team is world class and we are working very well together.

How would you describe Intuitive’s company culture?

The thing I like the best is that it’s patient-first. That might sound simplistic, but I think it’s essential—as long as you’re focused on doing what’s best for patients, you’re going to be successful. A close and related second is that this is one of the least political places I’ve ever worked, because we care more about our shared goals than personal agendas.

Another core aspect of our culture is that we must be inclusive and bring together a wide range of points of view to be successful. We are an incredibly multidisciplinary company—both across the technology and across the business. The level of teamwork required is probably the most challenging and rewarding part of working here.

What are your priorities as a leader?

At the highest level, customers are our first priority. We need to make sure our customers receive high-quality existing products and services and that we have a deep understanding of their evolving needs. My second priority is ensuring our existing products delight customers, and creating a clear roadmap of products and services that our customers will value in the future. Finally, I prioritize our people, making sure they have the resources and the skills they need to accomplish their goals. My goal is for the team to be as autonomous and empowered as possible, and on any given day, my priority will be to do whatever it takes to make sure the team is set up for success.

What are you excited to achieve, both short and long-term?

In the short-term we have a number of new products coming out. I already mentioned the smaller diameter stapler, which enables better visualization during the procedure and decreases the necessary port size. We are also upgrading some of the accessories used in every procedure to make them easier for the care team and the hospital. It is always exciting to see customers experience innovative products from our portfolio for the first time.

In the long-term, I’m excited about the scale of our opportunity. Even two decades in, we’ve just scratched the surface of what da Vinci can do; there’s tremendous opportunity for advancement in the procedures we’re already doing, and of course we’re also looking at new procedures—a great aspect of building a platform is that our work can translate to so many applications.

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Chris Carlson

For Multiport division SVP and GM Chris Carlson, an early desire to “create new things” paved the way to advancing a robotic surgery system that’s enabling surgeons to impact patients’ lives.


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