From Movie Sets to Operating Rooms, Chamberlain Group Turns Special Effects Biz into Healthcare Winner

4/13/09

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melds art and science, Lisa Chamberlain, vice president of the company, explains. Computed tomography (CT) scans of living subjects provide images of human organs with precise dimensions. The company then uses haptics technology—which enables digital models to be made with a touch-sensitive controller—to craft 3-D models of the organs. Those digital models are made into 3-D molds with special printing machines.

Here’s where the artistic part comes in. The firm uses proprietary combinations of silicon and polymers to create lifelike human tissues. By using varying ratios of silicon and polymer, the firm’s artists can control the elasticity, firmness, and other characteristics of the faux human tissues.

The company’s wares range from simple model replacement veins to complex organs like its impressive beating heart (see the lifelike model beating away in this video clip). The beating heart, which has been sold to customers such as Medtronic, has fake muscle tissue that expands when air pressure from an electric-powered pump is applied to an expandable mesh material inside of the tissue. The firm has even patented the beating heart model, Lisa Chamberlain says.

The Chamberlains’ transition from special effects to surgical models couldn’t have been scripted. The couple, who met while working for New York-based special effects company R/GA in the early 1980s, had previously worked on action movies such as Event Horizon and The Matrix. (Eric Chamberlain, a former head of physical effects at R/GA, led the design and construction of an array of some 120 cameras used to film action scenes in The Matrix.) Lisa Chamberlain, who was trained at Yale School of Drama, worked on the production side of the business.

But as the special effects business shifted to computer-animated effects, the Chamberlains sought new markets for their services, company spokesman Edward Agne told me. Lisa Chamberlain says that the she and her husband decided to move full on into the medical market after attending a Society of Thoracic Surgeons meeting in 2000, where they saw that many medical devices firms there were using anatomical models they had made for another distributor.

“We thought, maybe there’s something here,” Chamberlain says.

The company, founded in 1999, now employs about 20 people at its facility in Great Barrington, where it designs, builds, and ships surgical and anatomical simulacra to customers in 40 countries worldwide. Not a bad model to follow.

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