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'Shark Tank' deal for Tampa cadaver firm dead days after episode airs (w/video)

TAMPA — Seeing the sharks take the bait on ABC's hit show Shark Tank doesn't necessarily mean they're going to finish the meal.

The chief of SynDaver Labs, a growing Tampa firm that makes "synthetic humans" for trauma and surgical training, among other uses, appeared to win a commitment for a $3 million investment from one of the show's celebrity investors, tech mogul Robert Herjavec, in an episode that aired Friday.

But SynDaver's chief, Christopher Sakezles, told the Tampa Bay Times he was informed by one of the show's publicists late Tuesday that the deal is dead and no investment would be forthcoming from Herjavec.

Sakezles said no explanation was given. A call to a representative of Shark Tank was not immediately returned Wednesday afternoon.

"It was kind of surprising," said Sakezles, 49, who has worked on his product for two decades and formed SynDaver 10 years ago. "I'm not sure what happened."

It's something of an awkward moment for SynDaver.

Sakezles hasn't been shy about using television to raise his company's profile to attract investors. His synthetic humans have appeared on programs such as Mythbusters, Grey's Anatomy and Shipping Wars. Since Friday, SynDaver has heavily promoted Sakezles' Shark Tank appearance with Tampa Bay media, which have released reports touting the $3 million investment.

The Tampa native said his wife suggested a year ago that he apply to get on Shark Tank.

To grab the attention of producers, Sakezles sent one of his synthetic cadavers in a box via overnight mail to the show's Los Angeles office. SynDaver's "bodies" are composed of materials that mimic human tissue in a proprietary recipe that includes water, salt and fiber. High-end models that cost about $100,000 can breathe, bleed and respond to surgery or treatment.

The realistic creations look like an abandoned autopsy subject with their innards exposed. The ploy worked — Sakezles got a call from the show the day his product arrived in L.A.

"A crowd was apparently gathered around the body," he said.

Sakezles told the Times and other media before the deal died that the $3 million investment would help the company expand.

Sakezles, who holds a doctorate in polymer science from the University of Florida, said Wednesday he isn't too concerned about the lost $3 million. He said his company still has ambitious plans to expand internationally as it searches for additional investors, and the show helped make people aware of his product.

An initial public offering of stock is planned for 2018.

"I went into Shark Tank with many prospective investors," Sakezles said. "After the show aired, I have even more. These things happen. You've just got to roll with it. I have the greatest respect for Mr. Herjavec. He's still my favorite shark."

His company is a small player in the $2 billion medical simulation industry with Sakezles reporting $5 million in sales in 2014 and just $10 million over the company's existence. But the company says its product is more realistic than models offered by larger firms.

It employs 150, split between offices in Tampa and Phoenix.

SynDaver has raised its profile in the past two years with high-profile sales to universities, medical schools and the government, including the military.

Sakezles walked into Shark Tank with a nerdy introduction to a panel of celebrity investors: "Greetings, organic humans."

On the program, celebrity investors hear pitches made by ordinary business people. The investors use their own money in making investments.

Shark Tank producers have made no secret that some of the handshake deals seen on the program later fall through.

"Everybody that comes on is well aware that it is a gentleman's agreement and there will be a due diligence process for both parties," executive producer Clay Newbill told the New York Post in 2013.

Sakezles said he was aware the deal made on the air — the show taped in September before its airing Friday — wasn't guaranteed to close.

During the program, some of the celebrity investors seemed put off by Sakezles' answers when asked about company profits. Sakezles told them he was less concerned with short-term profits as he tried to expand the company through reinvestment.

"I'm not at all interested in the money," Sakezles said during the show. "It's just a tool to me that I use to hire people."

After some negotiation, Herjavec offered Sakezles $3 million for 25 percent equity in the company. Sakezles accepted. They shook hands on the deal.

A comment by Herjavec as the segment ended may have hinted at why the deal died. He suggested Sakezles would be replaced as CEO.

"He is a classic example of a brilliant guy that needs a CEO early on," Herjavec said.

Sakezles told the Times he would never have agreed to step down. But he insisted he does not know if that killed the investment.

"It's not going to happen," Sakezles told the Times on Tuesday before he knew the deal was dead. "I didn't spend 20 years on this to give up control to someone who doesn't know what they're doing and doesn't know the technology."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

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