Christopher Sakezles builds people.
It sounds like science-fiction. But before you accuse him of spurring a Cylon invasion of Earth, rest assured he’s using his powers for good.
Sakezles is the founder, CEO and chief technology officer for Florida-based SynDaver Labs, a company that creates, designs and builds synthetic human tissues and bodies. If that sounds a little out there to you, you’re not alone. When Sakezles began to pitch his idea to potential investors he didn’t receive the response he hoped.
“I got laughed at a lot—people thought I was crazy,” he said. “I did kind of understand because all I had was this crazy idea back then and some basic research. If I had walked in with a full synthetic human, it probably would have been a different story, but I didn’t have that back then.”
Sakezles wasn’t crazy. Both synthetic human tissue and synthetic cadavers have an amazing number of applications in the real world, from a practice surface for medical students to a life-like replacement for the traditional crash test dummy.
Sakezles was also told his technology wasn’t necessary.
“When I first started seeking investment I was commonly told that our technology was not necessary because ‘animals are cheap,'” he said. “Medical device testing is commonly performed on animals and in many cases they are considered cheap, disposable property.”
SynDaver cadavers are amazingly lifelike, and, unlike a traditional cadaver, some can be reused. He’s matter-of-fact when discussing the reusability of the synthetic cadavers, using an odd but apt simile.
“The larger more elaborate models are designed to be reused repeatedly,” Sakezles said. “And that can be serviced the same way a car would. You drive through a pothole and you blow a tire and you replace that tire. The same thing with any complex system like a synthetic human. You destroy one part, you replace that one part.”
Sakezles is forthright when he talks about the challenges of launching not only a startup, but of being one of the pioneers in a new field. The main difficulty? A simple cost-benefit analysis.
“It was difficult to stay focused while being poor,” he said. “I quit a job in the mid-’90s where I was making $100,000-plus. I had to give that up and take a vow of poverty while I was doing this labor of love.”
Today, that labor of love appears poised to change how cars are safety-tested and how surgeons learn to place medical devices.
While synthetic cadavers can stand in for the real thing in many ways, they aren’t perfect.
“It is still a model, so there’s a limit to what we can reproduce—in terms of scale—so things like fine micro-vessels and nerves you won’t currently see in our standard models,” he said. “All of the basic systems are there, however. There’s blood flow in the veins and arteries just like a real body, and you can ventilate the lungs. Our higher-end models include additional features–they will move, breathe and blink autonomously.”
While the synthetic cadavers aren’t perfect, they’re a far cry from the “tissue pucks” Sakezles first started producing. He’s even produced a synthetic dog cadaver for veterinary training.
“Our products have continuously become more complex,” he said. “My first product was a simple thing called a tissue puck—just a small, multilayered tissue construction… Over time, as we created more tissues and learned more about how they interacted, we could create more complex models, and start thinking about building organs and organ systems and limbs and bodies. It kind of grew like a Lego castle—once you have all of the parts, building is simple work.”
Kelly Prosen Hara is a Minneapolis writer who loves tabletop games, horror, roadside attractions and empowering women. She tweets pictures of her cats and food her husband makes @kellymprosen and blogs about love and mental illness at adventuresinpoorgrammar.blogspot.com.