By Samina Farid, Golden Seeds Managing Director and Lazarus 3D Deal LeadJanuary 18, 2022
Professionals in many fields rely on dress rehearsals and practice runs to hone their skills and ensure the best outcomes. Surgeons haven’t had that luxury. The only way for them to get meaningful, firsthand experience has been to operate on people, with all the uncertainties and risks that entails. Dr. Smriti Zaneveld was convinced there had to be a better way—and she made it a reality. Lazarus 3D, the company she co-founded and now heads as President, produces synthetic, 3D-printed models that promise to revolutionize surgery. Surgeons can now rehearse complex procedures on lifelike organs. For residents, this technology provides invaluable skills that can help reduce the learning curve.
Smriti recently told Samina Farid, Golden Seeds Managing Director and Lazarus 3D Deal Lead, about the journey that led to the birth of Lazarus 3D. Smriti discussed the challenges she faced and the progress the company has made and offered advice for other entrepreneurs seeking to make a difference.
SF: Tell us about the origins of your company.
SZ: It all started with a serendipitous conversation on a shuttle. When I was a Ph.D. student at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, I overheard a resident telling colleagues that he was preparing for his first surgery by “operating” on a bell pepper. He wasn’t joking — residents actually practiced suturing on bananas and removing seeds from peppers to perfect their surgical techniques. I couldn’t believe such antiquated methods were still being used! I began brainstorming solutions with my friend and colleague, Dr. Jacques Zaneveld. We started tinkering in our kitchen and eventually developed a technology that can produce soft, synthetic replicas of organs, created directly from patients’ 2D imaging data, using 3D printing. In 2014, we co-founded Lazarus 3D and in 2016, we moved Lazarus 3D into our first real facility, a small production space near the Texas Medical Center. Our clinical pilot was already underway and the published results clinically validated our technology and showed us its positive impact on patients outcomes. It was really exciting for both Jacques and I to see such enthusiasm from so many surgeons in the medical community. I quickly finished my Ph.D. at Baylor so that I could work full time on Lazarus 3D. Jacques is now the CEO and I joined him in 2018 as the President.
SF: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
SZ: Surgeons have always had to tackle complex procedures without rehearsing, which can lead to mistakes and complications that negatively affect the outcome. Lazarus 3D reduces the risk with our unique patented technology. Lazarus 3D’s Pre-Sure® platform (PREoperative Surgical Rehearsal) provides hyper-realistic replicas of organs made of soft, synthetic materials that can be cut, sutured, and surgically operated on. They can even bleed! Pre-Sure®models are 3D-printed directly from patient MRI/CT data, so surgeons can fine-tune their approach on a replica of the patient ahead of the patient’s real surgery. They are also invaluable training tools for medical students as they are a significant upgrade from using fruits and vegetables, or even cadavers. More importantly, Pre-Sure® allows surgeons to rehearse surgeries anytime, anywhere, at their own convenience so they are prepared for any complications that may arise ahead of time.
The uniqueness of this technology lies in the soft, life-like polymers that give Lazarus 3D a competitive edge over other 3D printing platforms. Competitors use tough resins to produce hard plastic models that cannot be surgically operated on, making Pre-Sure® the only platform that allows hands-on surgical rehearsals.
Our business model is also different. With competing products, hospitals have to buy expensive 3D printers and software and hire in-house experts to manage the design, manufacturing, regulatory compliance, quality as well as other factors involved in the process. Lazarus 3D provides a turnkey solution. Hospitals can buy specific models, which can be covered by the patient’s insurance, and deliver them in a couple of days. It’s a very streamlined process which can yield cost-savings resulting from reduced time in the operating room, reduced hospital stay, minimized complication rates as well as reduction in liability/malpractice. Importantly, it can improve doctor-patient communication and surgical decision making. Doctors have told us their patients find it fascinating and are really appreciative that the surgical team went above and beyond the standard of care.
SF: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
SZ: Funding was a challenge. Initially, we were self-funded through sales to our initial customers who were mostly medical schools and some medical device companies. However, we had to quickly scale operations to meet a rapid increase in demand from the medical community. That wasn’t easy. Most investors we connected with at the time in Houston were focused on SaaS and oil and gas, not health tech and medical devices. Instead of fundraising, we continued to bootstrap through partnerships with our customers who really supported us and funded us through sales. Medical professionals became our biggest champions, paying for the development of customized solutions. Our collaborations with surgeons at Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson and Texas Children’s were instrumental in our early success. Now, we have expanded our customer base to dozens of hospitals all over the U.S. and are also working on international partnerships.
We also faced regulatory hurdles in getting FDA clearance, which we received in 2021. It was the first-ever FDA clearance of 3D printing technology that allows for soft-tissue surgical rehearsals.
Convincing insurance companies to cover our models is going to be the next challenge. Early evidence indicates that 3D models can reduce healthcare costs by improving outcomes, minimizing errors and follow-on care. Some major health insurance plans have covered Pre-Sure®, which is very promising.
SF: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
SZ: Pre-Sure® is now on the market in the U.S., which was a culmination of years of work. Our next major challenge is getting the word out about our new technology and scaling our infrastructure to handle an influx of demand. To fuel this growth, Lazarus 3D is currently fundraising. It’s also important to build and develop strong partnerships with top hospitals and physicians who will see the benefits of Pre-Sure®.
Patients are also excited about how this technology will change their lives. We encourage patients to be their own advocates and ask their doctor about surgical rehearsals.
SF: What advice do you have for early-stage founders about raising money, growing a team, fostering company culture, or other issues you’ve had to address?
SZ: Just do it! It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about goals and finding reasons not to act, such as the lack of funding or expertise, but just get past it. The sooner you do, the faster you will learn how to address your shortcomings, who you need to partner with and how to overcome barriers to make it happen. Don’t underestimate yourself—but don’t overpromise, either.
SF: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
SZ: Golden Seeds is such an impressive organization of successful women who are empowering other women to succeed and giving them the opportunity to do so. We are so fortunate to have the unconditional support of Golden Seeds investors. They mentored us early on, trusted us and their incredible network has opened many doors. This kind of support can be critical for founders who are mission driven and unstoppable but need exceptional guidance and support to help them along the way.
For more wisdom like this from other incredible female leaders, read more on Golden Seeds’ blog.