Practice makes perfect

Houston company is using 3D printing to enhance surgeon training and prevent avoidable patient deaths

Lazarus 3D is using 3D printing to help advance surgeons' skills. Photo via laz3d.com

It is no surprise that, when a company offered life-like bladders for medical training, Houston urologists jumped at the opportunity — many had to learn the surgery by operating on bell peppers.

This sort of produce practice is the traditional method for teaching surgeons. Before a doctor ever makes an incision on a living person, they'll practice surgery on food — slicing bananas open and sewing grapes back together.

But for a pair of Baylor College of Medicine-educated doctors, that didn't seem like sufficient prep for working with living bodies; fruit surgery was not fruitful enough. In 2014, Drs. Jacques Zaneveld and Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld founded Lazarus3D to build a better training model — and layer by layer, they created models of abs and ribs and even hearts with a 3D printer.

"We adapted pre-existing 3D printing technology in a novel proprietary way that allows us to, overnight, build soft, silicone or hydrogel models of human anatomy," says Jacques, who serves as CEO. "They can be treated just like real tissue."

This isn't 3D printing's foray in medicine. In 1999, doctors in North Carolina implanted the first 3D-printed bladder in human bodies — they covered the synthetic organs in the patients' cells so that their bodies accepted them. Since, researchers have continued to find uses for the technology in the field, printing other organs and making prosthetic limbs.

But the Lazarus3D founders felt like medical training was lagging behind. Even cadavers, which medical schools also use to prepare doctors for surgery, don't represent a healthy human body or the diseased state of a hospital patient, said Smriti, who works as the research director.

The pair turned their kitchen into a printing lab and set to work, creating life-like models of human organs. They didn't have to go far after their first successes to find potential buyers — they just went to Starbucks. In a coffeeshop in the heart of the Medical Center, they talked loudly about their product until the neighborhood doctors and researchers took interest and gathered around.

Over the next few years, the Lazarus3D team pooled resources and contacts and, a summer after opening, they moved out of their kitchen and into an office. They now are a Capital Factory portfolio company and have partnerships with Texas Children's, Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and others, providing organs for specialized training — and the more they expand, the more they're able to prepare doctors for invasive, sometimes dangerous procedures.

"There are over 400,000 deaths annually in the U.S. due to medical error," Smriti says. "Not all of them are due to surgical mistakes, but all of these, nonetheless, were preventable."

The models can also be used for explaining to patients in a visual way what surgeries they're about to receive — the black and grey smears on an MRI scan might not actually help a patient understand much about what a surgeon is going to do to their body. In 2018, Lazarus3D won a contest with NASA on the potential for 3D printing organs in space, so that major surgeries might be performed there. And the printed organs can also be used by researchers to safely develop new surgery methods.

This year, the company grew to seven people and aims to expand even more to add to its sales and manufacturing teams. Having been funded mostly by friends and family investors, Lazarus3D plans enter its first equity round this year. They're raising $6 million.

"Every generation in medicine, people look back at what was done before and think 'Man, that was barbaric,'" Jacques said. "Fifty years from now, we're going to look back and think, 'Man, back then we used to just give someone a patient to learn how to do physical skills on? That seems crazy.'"

It might come as no surprise that Houston, home to the largest medical center in the world, has many impressive health startups. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston's growing life sciences industry has been a topic of discussion of late — and it's pretty obvious why.

In March, Houston was named the No. 2 top city for an emerging life sciences market, according to CBRE data. Houston was also named the No. 2 city for STEM jobs, per a report from American Enterprise Institute's Housing Center, which cited the city's growing life science industry as a factor. Even Amazon, which recently opened a Tech Hub in Houston, credited the city's life sciences as a reason for Houston's selection.

In fact, according to a report from the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston has over a fifth of the nation's clinical trials last year. With health care innovation abound in town, here are four startups to keep an eye on.

Integrated Bionics

Stephane Smith wants his company, Integrated Bionics, and its sports tech sensor to be a big win for Houston. Courtesy of Integrated Bionics

It may have taken a couple attempts, but Stephane Smith has created a booming sports wearable business that ships products across the United States and the world. Integrate Bionics produces the Titan Sensor — a wearable device that syncs GPS with video and provides athletic metrics at an attainable price. Most of the company's customers are soccer teams primarily in the collegiate space — with some professional and even youth teams. Smith says the company has a firm footing within soccer because that's where this technology really started.

With fresh funds from Houston-based Work America Capital, Integrated Bionics is on a path to scale and grow its product's capabilities.

"We're going to continue relentless innovation — doing things that no one is expecting and helping coaches with things not even on the radar," Smith tells InnovationMap. "We'll going to be rolling out new capabilities and features that have traditionally been relegated to high-end systems or that haven't even existed before."

Read more about Integrated Bionics here.

InformAI

InformAI can use its data technology to help doctors with preventative care and diagnoses. Courtesy of InformAI

Health care is one of the industries where data management might get a "needs improvement" on its report card. Hospitals everywhere have tons of data, and they aren't using it to their full potential. Houston-based InformAI is looking to change this within the Texas Medical Center.

Jim Havelka, founder and CEO, started the company in 2017, and created a new technology that allows hospitals and medical establishments better access to its own data – which translates into more effective diagnoses and preventative care. Havelka saw a need within the medical industry for this type of service.

"There were several things missing," says Havelka. "One was access to very large data sets, because it wasn't really until the last five or 10 years that digitalization of data, especially in the healthcare vertical became more widespread and available in a format that's usable. The second convergence was the technology, the ability to process very large data sets."

Read more about InformAI here.

Mental Health Match

Ryan Schwartz realized online dating was easier than finding a therapist. He created a tool to change that. Courtesy of Mental Health Match

If only finding a therapist was as easy as finding a date in a world where dating apps are a dime a dozen. Ryan Schwartz realized as he sat in a coffee shop with a friend making a connection online, it should be that easy.

"In two minutes she could have a profile matching her with a partner potentially for the rest of her life and I was sitting there for hours and hours trying to find a therapist," he recalls. "I thought it should be easier to find a therapist than a life partner. That's what sent me on my journey."

That journey reached a watershed last month when Schwartz launched Mental Health Match, a website designed to pair patients with their ideal therapist. The idea gained traction as Schwartz described it to people he met and found that many said they had experienced similar difficulties in finding the right practitioner for their needs.

Read more about Mental Health Match here.

Lazarus 3D

Lazarus 3D is using 3D printing to help advance surgeons' skills. Photo via laz3d.com

It's 2019 and surgeons are still using the same training tools they have used for decades: produce.

Two Baylor College of Medicine-educated doctors thought that sewing up grapes and slicing bananas was a bit antiquated. Drs. Jacques Zaneveld and Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld founded Lazarus3D to build a better training model — and layer by layer, they created models of abs and ribs and even hearts with a 3D printer.

"We adapted pre-existing 3D printing technology in a novel proprietary way that allows us to, overnight, build soft, silicone or hydrogel models of human anatomy," says Jacques, who serves as CEO. "They can be treated just like real tissue."

Read more about Lazarus 3D here.