CELLINK is the founder and manufacturer of the world’s first universal bio inks for printing tissues and organs. Their technologies introduce new quality and mark a breakthrough not only in medicine, but also in pharmacology and the cosmetics industry.
Paweł Łepkowski: Where did the idea for developing bioprinting come from and how did Cellink come into being?
Erik Gatenholm: I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur early on in life. My passion for creating a product that would make a positive impact is what has driven me from a young age. At 18 years old, I started my first biomedical device company during my freshman year at Virginia Tech to commercialize a licensed university technology. I learned a lot doing the licensing deals and understanding how ownership structures could play a role in the future of the business.
As I learned more about biotech and innovation, I knew I wanted to start a business that would revolutionize the healthcare industry. I had been fascinated by bioprinting and ended up connecting with my co-founder Hector Martinez who was studying his PhD in tissue engineering. At the time, Hector was working as a PhD student in my father’s lab, developing biomaterials that could be used for bioprinting applications. My father had developed a specific material that had great potential. At that point, we realized there was no place to purchase bioinks or biomaterials specifically for 3D bioprinting. Blown away by this gap in the market, we quickly worked together to create a universal bioink that anyone working with bioprinting could use. Upon completion of the bioink, we set up a webshop to see if we received any bites. In just 24 hours, we made our first sale. After several more orders came in within the coming weeks, we realized the enormous potential our product had. Thus, CELLINK was born and became the first company to commercialize a universal bioink for bioprinting of human tissues and organs.
PŁ: From start-up to market leader in the field of bioprinting. In the 12 months since its inception, you have commercialized your products in more than 25 countries and sold them to hundreds of prestigious laboratories around the world, such as Harvard, MIT, Princeton and the FDA. Your income and shares are constantly on the rise. How will you explain this spectacular success?
EG: The only explanation to continued growth and success is through excellent team work and hard work. We work extremely hard at CELLINK but we also have a ton of fun. We truly enjoy working together as a team and we bring on challenges everyday. Working with colleagues that embrace challenges and want to change the world, it’s easier to push yourself beyond what is possible alone. We have managed to put the right person in the right place. We were recently voted one of the top companies to work for after graduating in Sweden and I strongly believe that is thanks to our amazing culture. However, the most important aspect behind our growth has been the customer. We are extremely thankful for our customers around the world because it’s thanks to them that we have been able to develop better and more advanced products and solutions. We listen to our customers and truly care about their satisfaction.
PŁ: Commercialization of scientific research related to 3D bioprinting has created a completely new branch of industry. What do you currently offer your customers? What are your objectives and in what direction are you planning to develop?
EG: When we started this company, the industry was mainly focused on providing complex 3D printers with the capability of dispensing softer materials, such as hydrogels. There wasn’t so much of an industry for companies to compete it. What we brought to the table was the first packaged solution where customers could purchase both a bioprinter as well as a tissue specific bioink. This is what differentiated us from everyone else. Our goal was not to build the most advanced printer, nor was it to reach the highest temperatures. Our goal was to provide the most user-friendly and innovative technology to researchers around the world, at a very cost-effective price point. Since then, the industry has grown tremendously and we are proud to be leading the field forward together with our amazing customers and collaborators. In reality, we are just providing a good, steady technology platform that our customers can take to the next level. Their work is what is most impressive about this entire field.
PŁ: 3D bioprinting is undoubtedly the future of modern medicine. What have scientists already managed to do in this field? What are the achievements of scientists using your technologies?
Hector Martinez: The researchers and scientists in this field have already managed to develop a wide range of applications and technologies. We are proudly working with the best in the field and some of the amazing things they have managed to do ranges anywhere from printing of beta cells for insulin regulation to beating heart cells that can be used for the development of pharmaceutical drugs. One of the really amazing achievements that came out relatively recently is the 3d printed cornea by Professor Che Connon at Newcastle University. His group managed to print a human cornea using our technology platform and now they are working on moving towards clinical applications. We believe that this technology will truly change the world of medicine in the future, and already today it is impacting the field of science tremendously. We couldn’t be prouder to be part of this journey.
PŁ: A lot is said about bioprinting of the heart. What are the chances of creating a fully functional organ? What is the biggest difficulty? And is Cellink involved in these projects?
HM: While the heart is a tremendous application and an area that many researchers and scientists work on today, it’s certainly not the application that is closest to the clinical usage. The major challenge with printing large, functional organs and tissues today is the ability to print the vascular networks required to supply the embedded cells with nutrients and oxygen. Only until very recently was this not available and also one of the major challenges in this industry. In December, 2018, we launched the Holograph X Bioprinter together with Prellis Bio with the goal to solve one of the final puzzle pieces in the tissue printing field. The Holograph X is a brand new bioprinting system that utilizes a 2-photon laser technology to crosslink extremely small areas. For instance, the technology can print 10 micron vasculatures and capillaries that can then be embedded into the macro structures printed with the other bioprinting technologies. It’s an extremely sophisticated platform that can truly take the researcher to the next stage in the field of bioprinting.
PŁ: Polish scientists gathered in the BIONIC consortium, under the direction of the Foundation of Research and Science Development are working on bioprinting of the bionic pancreas, a fully vascularised organ. What were your feelings when you learned about this project?
HM: We are so extremely excited about this, especially since the applications is printing a pancreas. There is such major need for artificial pancreatic tissue today and the development has not been moving fast enough. While we do understand that this will take some time, we do recognize that this is a tremendously important application.
PŁ: In the middle of March you come to Poland. What is the purpose of your visit?
HM: The purpose of the visit is to participate in the charity auction organised by the Foundation of Research and Science Development and to bring major awareness to the field of bioprinting. Poland has been a country that has started to invest more and more into the field of bioprinting and regenerative medicine, and we are very excited to see this progress being made. It will take major efforts from many nations around the world to make an impact on the field of medicine. But it can only be possible if we start today.
Eric Gatenholm and Hector Martinez are unquestionable pioneers in the field of 3D printing. Cellink’s success is the proof that not only medicine but also the whole economy needs these revolutionary technological advances. I believe that the development of this industry in Poland is also possible. We have the necessary knowledge and many talented scientists thanks to which out research has already been appreciated many times abroad. The bionic consortium, realizing the project of bionic pancreas, belongs to the world’s leading centres working on the printing of a fully vascularised organ. We are at an advanced stage of research and, like the founders of CELLINK, we think about the widespread use and marketing of our products. Today’s world needs visionary scientists, who not only focus on discovering something, but do so with a view to possible applications of this technology for the benefit of all the mankind.