This Turkish engineer’s model helps doctors practice for breast surgery

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I met Özge Akbulut by chance when we were leaving the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport a couple days ahead of the European startup conference Slush. We were part of a group conversation about what we were all doing there. That’s when she asked me a very unusual question.

“Do you want to see a breast?”

Umm.

Reaching into her luggage, she pulled out one of her synthetic breasts. She and co-founder Barkın Eldem, MD, launched Surgitate, a materials startup that develops synthetic models to train prospective surgeons for breast surgery. In contrast to new virtual reality training tools, they provide a more realistic feeling of incisions, suturing, dissection, and reconstruction. Ultimately, they utilize advances in material science to quite literally reshape the way surgeons prepare for operations by building breast molds for different according to specific features. There are not yet producing unique models for individuals.

One of Surgitate’s models. Photo credit: Gedalyah Reback/Geektime

“I just need to create this market segment about surgical models. They’ve all been anatomical models and been good at creating a platform for teaching anatomy. This would be a tactile platform that make you feel like you are cutting a real breast and feeling the position of the nipple,” she explained.

Breast cancer surgery is not simple for doctors. Lumpectomies, or surgeries that remove tumors from breasts as opposed to full mastectomies, are delicate efforts that are unique for every patient. Because of size and shape variations with women, one size does not fit all when it comes to surgical training, especially not when it comes to breast reconstruction surgery later.

Özge Akbulut teaches materials science and engineering at Sabanci University, where she received her BS, and got her Ph.D. in the same field from MIT in 2009.

She noted that people in Scandinavia have a particular vulnerability to breast cancer due to mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, something we highlighted recently at Geektime. She told us that, “Everyone is trying to produce something; maybe simulation, virtual reality. There are these new techniques these guys might not have heard of.”

What’s important to Akbulut is building demand for a product that is up against sexier — if you will — modern options like VR simulation programs developed by Boston-based Osso VR, a combined effort by Dutch startups WeMakeVR and MDLinking.com, or Cleveland-based Simbionix (acquired by 3D Systems), among others. They also are not the first company to push synthetic modeling. Akbulut refers to Syndaver, which produces — wait for it — synthetic cadavers.

“I need to know more workshop organizers in a sense: look here is what I have that I might be useful. We always got a lot of good feedback from the customers. Surgeons might ask for more details like nipple placement, thicker skin.”

Besides surgical training, they see the product as a way to teach people to self-diagnose as well. They don’t plan to limit themselves to simple models after consulting with doctors interested in their work. Instead, they plan to pursue more complex molds to cover bronchoscopy (lung procedures), tracheostomies (windpipe), axillary lymph node models, and sentinel lymph node dissections.

Abkulut tells Geektime that cadavers can cost around $3,000-$8,000 apiece, which does not include the cost in storing them and the time limit before the bodies are no longer usable for teaching purposes. But most importantly according to Abkulut, cadavers are more often used for anatomical training, not surgery.

Even though she would be dealing with a variety of details, it would not take her company much time to produce an order. “If I have the mold and it’s something we negotiate beforehand, it will take a weekend.”

They order the molds from an outside manufacturer. Her company can produce 10 new models and models a day according to specifications of any size and shape, just like baking a cake she says.

For now they are selling in Turkey, Australia, and the UK. Discussions are underway for distribution in Singapore and the United States. Her would-be US distributor wants the process approved by the FDA and a little more legal consultation before getting to work.

Women’s entrepreneurship in Turkey

Akbulut at TedX in Turkey displays an art project of a visual artist she works with taking cast molds of a patient’s breasts which helped create the first molds for Surgitate. Photo credit: Screenshot / YouTube

They currently have four investors. One of them, plastic automotive parts company Farplas, helps plan the manufacturing of the breast models right down to the molding and painting. They also have investments from Turkish accelerator Inovent, Akbulut’s Sabanci University and the Arya Women Investment Platform, a women’s entrepreneurship and networking organization in Turkey. Getting into their network isn’t as simple as pitching and making a business plan. You only get cash if your business can teach and learn from other portfolio companies.

That theme is also present in Akbulut’s work outside the office. “One of the more important problems in the startup world, especially in Turkey, I don’t know if I need to keep books or go to a notary. These guys handle these things for you. I learn lots of stuff, but they do things while I have my full-time job.

“They are extremely helpful for HR stuff, even did the interviews for me. They’re arranging the interviews, organizing,” she said.

She has been a featured speaker at TedXReset in Turkey, and spoken at numerous other entrepreneurial and Turkish startup events for organizations such as the Turkish Women’s International Network.

“Before being an entrepreneur, I was already active in recruiting women to engineering fields,” explaining that while some women might not be so interested in the field, many have never considered it.

“If you want more people to believe in what I believe in, engineering and good design, you just need to talk to these people. If you don’t try, then they don’t choose.”

She has also had the chance to earn her degrees and teach at a time of further integration of religious women in Turkish universities, saying she has several students who wear the once-banned headscarves on Turkish campuses.

One of the things forgotten about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is that his election ushered in reforms that have done enforced secularism in public circles. His AKP party has relaxed the ban on wearing a hijab in universities over the past 15 years, making it easier for religious women to attend.

That may have a normalizing effect on Turkish women, whereas more religious students have entered the sciences. Yet, Akbulut says she still mostly encounters secular women in circles promoting women’s entrepreneurship. She is not sure if that is something prevalent across the country, suggesting more religious women might be found in business associations like the Muslim Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (MUSIAD).

“I have several students with headscarves in the university,” though there might still be gaps getting that knowledge into the business field. “I don’t see very many religious women in entrepreneurship.”

She hopes her talks, activism, and her own company’s success can have an impact on driving more women to enter the sciences and consequently market their own innovations because of it. It’s one of her primary motivations to keep pushing for a true change in the surgical market.

“My bottom line is I just like the entrepreneurship community.”

An earlier version of this article wrote Surgitate produces breast models for individual patients. This is not true. They currently produce generic models.

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