Made in the Berkshires: Special effects wizardry makes medical models
Photo Gallery | Made in the Berkshires : The Chamberlain Group
GREAT BARRINGTON — Surgical Sam is a rubbery replica of a 14-month-old child whose plastic organs resemble the real thing. Sam's heart beats. His lungs breathe. His blood vessels bleed.
Sam may be a rubbery dummy, but devices like it allow surgical students and doctors to practice delicate techniques before they plunge a scalpel into a human patient.
Surgical Sam is one of many anatomically correct medical models with the consistency and responsiveness of living tissue models made here in the Berkshires by The Chamberlain Group. Operating out of a nondescript, 7,800-square-foot former auto body shop on 934 Main St. (Route 7) in Great Barrington, The Chamberlain Group's Surgical Sam is one of about 500 medical products it designs, manufactures and sells in 50 countries. The company has annual sales approaching $10 million.
Eric and Lisa Chamberlain, the husband and wife team who make their home in Stockbridge, founded the business in 1999. In fact, their company had a Hollywood beginning — like, right out of the movies — after adapting techniques they learned creating special effects for the film industry.
The Chamberlain Group works with more than 100 medical device companies and teaching and working hospitals that include Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Albany (N.Y.) Medical Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and Columbia and Stanford universities.
It's unusual work. They have competitors, but the Chamberlains created a business genre basically from scratch. Thus, The Chamberlain Group's 23 employees, which include the couple's daughter, Halli, a Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts graduate, come from diverse backgrounds.
The company employs fabricators, an industrial designer and plastic casters. One employee has a background in fine arts sculpting, having attended the Chicago Fine Arts Institute.
"We have people who do not have high school degrees. A whole bunch of people who grew up in this area. It's all over the map," said Lisa Chamberlain, the company's vice president and managing partner. Eric serves as The Chamberlain Group's president.
"Because this is a business that we made up, there is no one that came to us with a defined set of skills that were perfectly appropriate for what we do," Lisa said.
Lisa, 57, who grew up in Connecticut, oversees the company's business development. A graduate of Princeton University, she also did graduate work at Yale.
A native of New Jersey who majored in history and architecture at Montclair State University, Eric, 73, heads the company's design and new product development team, and holds U.S. and international patents on the company's Beating Heart Trainers, devices that simulate actual beating hearts.
The couple gravitated to the film industry during and after college, and met in New York City while working for the Academy Award winning design and effects studio R/Greenberg Associates. They originally came to the Berkshires to work in special effects and opened their own studio in Lenox.
Their film credits include effects, opening titles and feature campaigns for several big budget films including "Superman," "The World According to Garp," "Tootsie," "Gandhi," the original "Ghostbusters," movie and "The Matrix."
The Chamberlains' lives changed in 1999 when a man looking for someone to make anatomically correct medical models contacted them through their silicone supplier in Danvers.
"We were finishing up a movie project," Lisa said. "He said, 'Do you want to make medical models?' We said, 'Sure, what's that?'
"The interesting thing about being in movies and visual effects in particular is that we were always doing new things," she said. "We were never in the game to repeat what we did before. So when he said do you want to make medical models we took it on and it was a pretty good challenge."
Staying in the Berkshires also factored into the couple's decision to make a career change.
"Unlike movie work where you have to be on set, this was a way for us to stay in this area and do something meaningful and sufficiently remunerative to support a life here," she said.
With help from the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center in Pittsfield, the Chamberlains established their company, and began building medical models the following year. In 2000, Lisa Chamberlain's business plan was awarded first place in the University of Massachusetts' Five College Business Plan competition.
"For a local business to win an award like that is a testimony to who they are," said Keith Girouard, the regional director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center in Pittsfield.
"They're very talented," said Girouard, whose predecessor at the Small Business Development Center worked with the Chamberlains. "It's the kind of business we would like many of our businesses in Berkshire County to be."
In May, the Chamberlain Group was named the state's 2016 Exporter of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. The company's work was also honored by Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state's leading employer association, last month.
"It's a testament to their perceptive leadership and very fine-tuned marketing forces and strategy," Girouard said. "They went from a locally based business to a national reputation and now an international reputation. That's a trajectory that we've hoped for many businesses to have here."
The Chamberlain Group initially creates products based on suggestions from their many collaborators, Lisa said.
"We then do what we call 'knowledge extraction' in order to get a scope of what their project is," she added.
Inside the former auto body shop, The Chamberlain Group will design a product, develop it, then make a prototype using advanced design techniques that include 3-D printing. They also do the manufacturing.
"Once we make a product, it becomes part of our arsenal," Lisa said. "So the teaching hospitals and medical device companies are buying products that we've already made."
They recently developed a device that allows doctors to avoid using live animals to practice surgery.
Their products are extremely life-like — Surgical Sam even comes with incisable skin — but the Chamberlains won't say how they make them that way.
"That's the secret sauce," Lisa said.
Eric said the couple's work now is much more rewarding than it used to be.
"Yes," he said, emphasizing the word. "It's challenging and interesting. We're really involved with most of the cutting-edge procedures that are taking place in surgery now which is really interesting."
"We have a trademark that [says] 'Bringing practice to the practice of medicine,'" Lisa said. "That really is what all of our work is about."
Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224.
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