CSU professors develop realistic surgical models for thriving startup

Rick Cookson

Colorado State University veterinary student Paul Ryan and Clinical Sciences professor, equine surgeon and SurgiReal co-founder Dean Hendrickson look over a SurgiReal product, March 13, 2015. Hendrickson and CSU research scholar and DVM Fausto Bellezzo created a line of artificial tissues, some of which bleed, to better train veterinary students in surgery and suture techniques. (Photo courtesy of William A. Cotton)
Colorado State University veterinary student Paul Ryan and clinical sciences professor, equine surgeon and SurgiReal co-founder Dean Hendrickson look over a SurgiReal product, March 13, 2015. Hendrickson and CSU research scholar and Dr. Fausto Bellezzo created a line of artificial tissues, some of which bleed, to better train veterinary students in surgery and suture techniques. (Photo courtesy of William A. Cotton/source.colostate.edu)

It’s hard to make the cut in modern surgery, but thanks to two Colorado State University professors, it’s getting a little easier.

Dr. Dean A. Hendrickson and Dr. Fausto Bellezzo, equine surgeons in CSU’s Department of Clinical Sciences, have created the patented SurgiReal body wall models, which simulate real skin to help train students going into medical surgery on how to correctly cut, stitch and suture real skin.

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“Students are grabbing carpet pads, suture pads, different fruits, vegetables, pigs’ feet, but it’s not preparing them in the most accurate way,” Dean said. “But as students, they don’t have anything else and they’re just trying to learn.”

According to Dean, oftentimes surgical students go for impractical training proxies such as bananas, oranges or pieces of carpet, which end up causing problems when students try to do the real thing.

“The big weakness in training was bridging the gap between the real thing and training,” Dean said. “When using substitutes like orange peels, students would come into the real thing, get stressed and do things like use too much thumb pressure, traumatize the tissue or grab needles wrong.”

Seeing common surgical training methods, like practicing sutures on fruit, as insufficient tactics for surgical training, Dean and Bellezzo formed their SurgiReal startup company with the help of CSU Ventures in 2012. But the idea for the product really started in 2009 when Dean and Bellezzo started mixing different types of silicone, experimenting with different models and constructing the various layers. Their goal was to create realistic and viable skin models for surgical training, which would not only be inexpensive, but also reusable (and they are reusable — one five-layer SurgiReal pad can be reused up to 10 times).

“We wanted these models to look real, feel real, cut like real skin, bleed like real skin and suture like real skin too,” Dean said. “Our first product was a simulated vessel for blood, and from there, we spent six to eight months combining thousands of silicone mixtures until we found the right one.”

But even though the mixture was right, Dean said there was still something missing — it just didn’t feel like the real thing. The body wall models produced fake blood when cut into through SurgiReal’s RealFlow vessel simulator, the multi-layered RealLayer pads mirrored the feeling of cutting through different layers of skin, but still there was something missing. That’s when Hendrickson turned to his son, Grahm Hendrickson, a CSU alum with a degree in art education who had been working with SurgiReal since day one.

“We were using this stuff called rayon flock in different layers of the models and they still had that plastic feel to them,” Grahm said. “Then I thought, ‘What if we put it on the layers instead of in them?'”

While curing a batch of fresh-made models, Grahm said he brushed on the rayon flock and it instantly changed the texture from plastic-feeling to feeling like real skin. Along with that, the exterior, top skin layer was modeled by taking leather and using its imprint as the general design of the first layer of skin.

After the design was solidified in 2013, SurgiReal began mass-producing them and now the SurgiReal body wall models are being used in more than 140 different medical and surgical institutions across the nation. Within the first year of sales, SurgiReal’s revenue was reaching more than $280,000, and for 2015, Dean says they are hoping to make $400,000.

“We had a financial last Tuesday and sales are going great right now,” Dean said. “It’s looking like we’re on track to make our goal, and possibly even exceed that.”

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Colorado State University's Fausto Bellezzo and Dean Hendrickson created a line of artificial tissues, some of which bleed, to better train veterinary students in surgery and suture techniques and founded the spin off company SurgiReal. (Courtesy of William A. Cotton/source.colostate.edu)
Colorado State University’s Fausto Bellezzo and Dean Hendrickson created a line of artificial tissues, some of which bleed, to better train veterinary students in surgery and suture techniques and founded the spin-off company SurgiReal. (Courtesy of William A. Cotton/source.colostate.edu)

Around April 2014, Dean said SurgiReal became cash-flow positive and is currently trying to survive off sales. But for Dean and other employees at SurgiReal, the thriving sales revenue is simply a by-product of their true achievements, which Dean thanks CSU Ventures for helping accomplish those achievements.

“I’ve been an academic for 25 years and there’s this tendency for researchers to discover one thing and then move on to other things,” Dean said. “But the good thing about using CSU Ventures is that it allows us to communicate this research and what we’ve learned from it. For us, it was the SurgiReal body wall models, and now there (are) more students around the nation getting real surgical training.”

CSU Ventures currently assists more than 30 different startup companies, including SurgiReal, in commercializing their innovations in their specific field. The CSU Ventures’ 2014 annual report exhibited several prosperous startup companies at the University, such as Creative Works, BioPoly and, of course, SurgiReal.

“It’s really cool technology and could possibly lead to greater advances in surgical training — maybe models of entire animal or human bodies for surgical training,” said junior animal science major Elaine Ptaskiewicz.

According to Dean, some of those greater advances that Ptaskiewicz mentioned aren’t actually that far off from their future plans.

“We’re working to make canine and human palpation models with touch-sensitive organ sensors that show when too much or too little pressure is being put on the model, or when skin traumatization is ensuing,” Dean said.

Currently offering over 25 different surgical training products, SurgiReal employees are excited for the future and the plethora of advancements in surgical training products, which will ultimately lead to a better education in modern surgery.

Collegian Senior Reporter Rick Cookson can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com and on Twitter @RickCookson1.