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From the Operating Room to the Soccer Pitch: Building Surgical Robotics—and Company Culture—at Intuitive

Tim Haines Myles Iribarne

Tim Haines (senior mechanical engineer), Myles Iribarne (senior robotics controls engineer), and their teammates are working together to design the next generation of Intuitive’s robotic surgery platform—but that’s not Tim and Myles’ only collaboration. Since 2019, they’ve also co-run a company-wide annual soccer tournament that includes players from departments across Intuitive. Below, Tim and Myles explain why they joined the company, how they partner on both projects, and what they’re most looking forward to right now—in the office and on the field.

What did you do before Intuitive, and what brought you here?

Tim: Intuitive actually determined my path even before I got here. During my senior year of college—when I thought my career would be designing cars—I went to a presentation on the future of robotics. One of the things it covered was surgeries, and they showed Intuitive’s da Vinci system. I realized da Vinci was something that helped so many people; it felt more impactful than cars. So I started looking for colleges that did research on medical robotics, which led me to the University of Washington’s BioRobotics Lab. One day an Intuitive recruiter came to visit the lab, looking for engineers to help launch the da Vinci Xi, and she invited me to fly to Sunnyvale, California for a visit.

When I saw the Intuitive campus, I was amazed. There are machine shops where you can just walk over and make your own parts for a prototype, which as a mechanical engineer is worth a lot. But even more than the resources, I was impressed by the people. Everyone is down to earth, it’s very much a team environment where people build each other up. And they clearly really cared about the work we do here and how it helps patients in the real world. So I dropped out of my Ph.D. program and came here to start working on the Xi.

Myles: I studied mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley and started my career at Honeywell Aerospace. I worked on controls and fault detection algorithms for a number of projects, including NASA’s Artemis I moon mission that just launched last year. When I joined Intuitive, I was excited about pivoting to work on products that impact people’s lives directly. We can see the results of our work right there in the number of surgeries performed every year. The day-to-day work is also very dynamic—because we’re working directly with the system. We can move quickly to prototype new features and see how they perform in pre-clinical labs. That’s a lot of fun for me.

Tell us about the work each of you do, and how your teams work together.

Myles: Because I’d worked on fault detection and recovery for space projects, I’ve done a lot of similar work here with our safety algorithms—improving them and developing new ones. Another area I work on is the teleoperation loop from the surgeon to the patient, and back. Robotic surgery is sort of like driving a remote-controlled car: The surgeon is at a console, holding a controller—this is one of the things Tim’s team works on. When the surgeon moves the controller, the software detects this motion, scales it, and conditions the signals to replicate the motion precisely at the tooltip operating in the patient. If the robotic arm operating on the patient reaches a range of motion limit or bumps into an external object, we need to ensure that those interactions are safe and communicate them to the surgeon through visual cues or other means. I work on many aspects of this control loop, making sure these interactions are safe. It’s a really interesting set of technical challenges and considerations.

Tim: I joined in 2013, and my first project was the endoscope—the camera—for the da Vinci Xi. We got that out the door and I spent another year making it more robust, and then I wanted to work on moving parts. So I joined our Systems Design team to help develop the next generation surgical arm—the same project Myles is on. My team designs gears, housings, wires—all those physical pieces—and he and the other systems analysts (SAs) are our closest partners, because the mechanics and algorithms have to flow together perfectly. When we start a new project, we’re all in a room together, spelling out the goals and specs, and then every Friday we sit down and rough out the design. We take motors and drive trains and start experimenting, share data with the SAs to see how it fits into their side, and keep adjusting until we get a product we’re all happy with. 

 

Myles: And then one of the really interesting parts of the job is we’re incorporating feedback not just from each other, but also from our clinical development engineers. They use our prototypes regularly and serve as a proxy for the surgeon during development. So day-to-day it’s a three-way loop, with everything ultimately driven by the needs of the surgeons and patients.

The two of you organize Intuitive’s annual soccer tournament. What’s that event like, and how did it come to be?

Tim: We held our 11th annual tournament in August, and soccer at Intuitive goes back even further than that—to the early 2000s. It started at what is now Intuitive Surgical Park, a private park across from our headquarters that Texas Instruments owned at the time. They started hosting pickup games and invited Intuitive team members to join, and we’ve kept the games going over the years. It’s just a low-key fun thing; skill levels vary from people who played soccer for their university to people who have never played before.

The first tournament was just two teams, from Service and Manufacturing, and that eventually became four. Then in 2019, when Myles and I took the reins, we expanded to eight teams, reflecting the growth of the company as well as adding an intern team—the tournament is timed specifically so we can include them. Last year we had close to 150 people, with 16 games played over three evenings. The Quality team took home the Golden Gimbal, which is our tournament trophy that’s been around since the beginning—it’s an original da Vinci Xi arm painted gold. It’s always a lot of fun. We have players of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, and you get to know people from other departments who you might otherwise never get to meet. 

Myles: Absolutely, and that’s true of our weekly pickup games on Wednesdays during lunch, too—I’ve met so many people here through soccer, and it does translate to our work. When you’re working on a new project and happen to know someone from another department through soccer, it helps facilitate those initial connections. It’s one of my favorite perks of working here; I always make sure I’m on-site on Wednesdays so I can play.

What are each of you looking forward to right now—in terms of soccer, and your work on Intuitive’s products?

Myles: We’ve been working hard on the next generation platform, and it’s going to be exciting to see that eventually come to fruition and be out in the world, helping patients. I’m looking forward to the technical challenges of a future launch, too—bringing up a lot of new systems at once and making sure they’re reliable, and then thinking about the new control modes that we can add over time.

On the soccer side, I’m excited to make the tournament more of an institution. There’s certainly no lack of demand; I think we could double our team size in 2023. 

Tim: Yeah, we could use some skilled help; Myles and I are engineers, not event planners! Work-wise, as Myles said, it’s going to be exciting to see the future launch of the next generation platform. This is the first system I’ll be on board for all the way from concept to release, and when that’s out in the world—it just takes me back to the moment I saw that presentation in college. Seeing our work helping people is what makes everything we do worth it.

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Tim Haines

Tim Haines is a senior mechanical engineer helping to design the next generation of Intuitive’s robotic surgery platform.

Myles Iribarne

Myles Iribarne is a senior robotics controls engineer helping to design the next generation of Intuitive’s robotic surgery platform.