This story is a bonus online element for the package on science entrepreneurship that appears in the 12 June issue of Science.
Last month, millions of people watching ABC’s prime-time television show Shark Tank learned what Christopher Sakezles says his wife already knew—that he can sweat a lot when nervous. Despite a perspiration-drenched presentation on 8 May in front of the show’s five celebrity investors—he ignored his wife’s suggestion to spray his face with antiperspirant—the polymer scientist landed the biggest deal in Shark Tank’s history. With a life-size synthetic cadaver as a prop, Sakezles persuaded technology entrepreneur Robert Herjavec to pay $3 million for a 25% stake in SynDaver Labs, a firm that Sakezles founded a decade ago to create realistic artificial tissues, organs, and whole bodies for surgical training and other purposes.
But as fans of Shark Tank know well, not every deal struck on the show lasts once the cameras turn off. After Sakezles and Herjavec traded further information and initial terms, the partnership fell apart. One sticking point was obvious on the show, as the investors challenged Sakezles’s plan to invest SynDaver’s immediate profits back into the company for further product development. “They wanted to replace me as CEO and this is not something I will allow at this point,” Sakezles says. (Herjavec doesn’t comment on deals that aren’t completed, one of his publicists says.)
Don’t feel sorry for Sakezles, however. SynDaver is on track to make $10 million this year, he says, adding that the company has lined up investors who place an even higher valuation on the company than Herjavec did. Sakezles predicts SynDaver will expand from its current 100 employees to 500 within 3 years. “We’re growing like wildfire.”
The company’s history traces back to the 1990s, when Sakezles, a graduate student at University of Florida, set out to evaluate a new endotracheal tube his lab had designed. The team couldn’t afford to test it on animals, so they bought an artificial trachea from an outside company. Sakezles recalls it as being little more than a plastic tube. “It was a pure piece of crap. I took one look and threw it in the circular file. I had to essentially build my own model.” So he and colleagues crafted a trachea from multiple polymers, realistically simulating cartilage rings, muscles, and a mucosal layer.
After getting his Ph.D. in 1998, Sakezles eventually began consulting for medical device firms. He found they were interested in his experience building realistic models of tissues and organs. “The company grew out of that. It wasn’t a burst of lightning. It was a gradual thing. I never thought of it as a standalone business.”
Sakezles did eventually write a business plan for a synthetic tissues company that he pitched to potential investors. He failed miserably, he says. “Everyone thought I was insane. I’m a terrible pitchman. I’m the scientist. I’m the tech guy.” But Sakezles was able to scramble together money from friends, family, and his own bank account to push ahead with the company.
He started developing tissue analogs first, only later moving onto organs and then whole bodies. The company now markets some 100 artificial body parts made from materials that mimic the mechanical, thermal, and physicochemical properties of live tissue and can replace the use of animals or human cadavers. Medical device companies, medical schools interested in surgical training, and companies doing ballistic tests are just some of SynDaver’s customers. “I proved the naysayers wrong. There definitely is a market,” Sakezles says.
And although he may not personally be a great salesman, his company’s artificial cadavers—the flagship model costs about $40,000—have been a boon for publicity. SynDaver’s products have popped up in many TV shows, including Grey’s Anatomy and MythBusters. Sakezles, who notes Shark Tank’s producers deftly edited his more than 2 hours with the investors panel into just a 10-minute segment, says he went on the show truly looking to land an investment partner. He specifically wanted Herjavec or Mark Cuban, another shark who specializes in technology. But he admits publicity for the company was also a major motivation. “From the exposure side, we knocked it out of the park,” Sakezles says.