Inside Cellink, the Swedish company building 3D printers for living tissue

One day we’ll replace our old knackered organs with brand new ones that are printed out exclusively for us with a 3D printer. And when we do, we’ll quite possibly use a printer like the Cellink Bio X to do so.

The $39,000 Bio X is the latest 3D bioprinter made by Cellink, a biotech company headquartered in Gothenburg, Sweden. In addition to the ability to print living tissues, it also boasts a pleasingly high-end finish, with a miniature touchscreen on the front, and smart “patent pending Clean Chamber Technology” that’s able to remove 99.97 percent of all airborne particulate over 0.3 microns in size. It’s white in color, like an iPod, and about the size and shape of a tabletop ice maker. If Apple’s design guru Jony Ive printed out human skin samples, they would probably be printed using something like this.

We’re viewing the Bio X at Cellink’s offices in Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden. Having started with just a handful of employees in a single room of this office building, a hub for biotech companies, Cellink has gradually taken over more and more of the building. Currently they have 50 employees occupying two floors. On the company’s website, the corporate photo shows this whole team, huddled together on a sunny beach somewhere, smiling into the camera like it’s the group photo from the last day of summer camp. They’re all wearing blue t-shirts bearing one of two possible slogans: “Keep Calm and Bioprint” or “Let Me Take a Cellfie.”

Anyone who wanted to do 3D bioprinting had to make their own ink from scratch.

The rapid growth of Cellink has left its offices in a constant state of expansion. Some rooms are packed full of things, while others are almost entirely empty; as if it’s still awkwardly figuring out what to do with all this new space. It’s like a teenager in the middle of a growth spurt. Everywhere you look in Cellink’s HQ there are large glass walls. They’ve got things written all over them in sharpie, because that’s what happens in research labs and tech startups ever since A Beautiful Mind came out. On one of the glass walls is scrawled “Learning never exhausts the mind — Leonardo da Vinci.” Just about the only place you’d expect to find see-through glass, but don’t is a wall-length window that would once have looked out over Gothenburg. It’s been frosted over to stop people from rival companies peering in.

“What we’re doing here is to develop the technology which allows scientists and researchers to create human organs and tissues at each using a biological ink, modified 3D printers and human cells,” Erik Gatenholm, co-founder and CEO of Cellink, told Digital Trends. “What we do at Cellink is to provide this entire package of components to customers and users worldwide so that they can get started as easily as possible.”

Entering the industry at an important juncture

3D bioprinting is one of those technologies which sounds so science fiction it really shouldn’t exist anywhere outside of a Michael Crichton novel. It works much like regular 3D printing, with sequential ultra-thin sheets of materials printed one layer at a time. Unlike ordinary 3D printing, however, in bioprinting it’s possible to add in cells and biomaterials to fabricate parts which look and act like natural tissues.

In the long term, this will give us vascular organs like new hearts and kidneys. In the short term, it creates simpler materials which can be used for applications like testing out new drugs.

“This was an area that was totally open. I decided to claim it.”

Erik Gatenholm got into bioprinting at an exciting time. He first discovered it thanks to work carried out by his father, a professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology. In 2015, Gatenholm Sr. acquired a $200,000 bioprinter for his lab. Gatenholm Jr. was intrigued, although he was also shocked to discover that there was no such thing as a standardized bio-ink yet.

At that time, anyone who wanted to do 3D bioprinting had to make their own ink from scratch. It was like asking the owner of a new Epson inkjet to start creating pigments and dyes in their home office before being able to print out an email. He was surprised — but excited. “As an entrepreneur, you look for areas which are open, or at least relatively open,” he said. “Nowadays, it’s difficult to find an area that’s completely open. But we looked into it and this was an area that was totally open. I decided to claim it.”

Gatenholm hooked up with Héctor Martínez, a PhD student who was working on tissue engineering. They developed a bio-ink of their own, made from a seaweed-derived material called nanocellulose alginate, which could be used for printing tissue cartilage. In 2015, they put the product online, priced at $99 for a cartridge. Then they waited.

“We built a little webshop and launched it,” Gatenholm continued. “We weren’t even a real company at that point. That first night we got our first sale. It was from the University of Michigan — and they didn’t up buying just one cartridge; they bought five. It was instant confirmation. That fuelled us.”

Creating a standardized bio-ink wasn’t just exciting from an entrepreneurial perspective. It was also exciting because it could speed up the adoption of bioprinting. Asking researchers to mix their own inks was costly, time-consuming, and — crucially — made it harder to reproduce work and share data.

Going public

With their business beginning to bear fruit, Gatenholm and Martínez began attending academic conferences, trying to drum up more business. “We kept hearing from people who said they’d love to try our ink, but that they didn’t have a printer,” he said. “So we decided to get into printers, too.”

“It was important to me to get it under $5,000.”

The result of that realization was the INKREDIBLE 3D printer, launched in late 2015. It was priced at $4,999, a world away from the six-figure bioprinter Gatenholm’s father had bought for his lab. “It was important to me to get it under $5,000,” he said. “That makes it a credit card purchase.”

Just ten months after it launched, Cellink went public, being listed on the Nasdaq. Its shares were oversubscribed by 1,070 percent. Trading began on November 2016, a year after the INKREDIBLE 3D started shipping.

“That was a blast,” he said. “Coming from the U.S., the IPO is viewed as the big exit. It means you’ve been running your company for 10 years, and you’re ready to make an exit. In Sweden, we took in our first round in spring 2016. At that point, one of our main investors said, ‘We should go public.’ I thought it was crazy, that we weren’t at that point yet. But he explained that it didn’t have to be an exit. We could use it raise funding without diluting our company too much.”

cellink-biox-printer-sample

Was Gatenholm concerned about the IPO? After all, as impressive as sounds, the dot-com bubble was full of similarly speedy public offerings, which turned out to be little more than pump-and-dump schemes. Pet accessories company Pets.com had its own meteoric rise and public offering — only 268 days before it went into liquidation.

No, he said. Unlike a lot of those companies — and despite the fact that the 3D bioprinting of complete vascular organs is still decades away — Cellink has one big thing going in its favor: it is making money. “We had a product on the market,” he said. “We had a good business going. Many companies which have had a premature IPO didn’t yet have a product. They just had an idea, but no sustainable model. We’re profitable.”

The groundwork has been laid

Ultimately, this is what makes Cellink so profitable, and tantalizing to investors. It is new technology, but an old business model. It’s the same model that’s likely behind whatever printer you’ve got sat on your desk at work: sell affordable hardware and bring back repeat business for the inks. It’s smart, and it means that Cellink is different from other biotech companies in areas like, say, drug discovery, who have to be willing to burn cash for a decade before they’ve got a product on the market.

They’ve got big customers, too. The printers are used in dozens of research institutes around the world, including the likes of MIT and Harvard. The U.S. Army uses its products, as does Johnson & Johnson and Toyota. Applications range from the 3D bioprinting of tumors for personalized cancer research to… well, whatever a car company like Toyota wants 3D bioprinting for. It’s a world away from the pricey printer Gatenholm saw in his dad’s lab.

inside cellink hq staff
Cellink staff

“A lot of the legwork has been done in the past ten years,” he said. “We’ve watched behemoth systems, big expensive ones, that used to be sold for $200,000. They did an essential function. I always recognize that when I present this business. I’m humble about the work they’ve done. A lot of them were great systems, great companies, but they just didn’t have it in them to take the next step.”

Cellink is hoping that it does. We’re hoping it does, too. Because while there’s clearly a whole lot of money to be made from this industry, it’s also got the chance to improve life for millions, or even billions, of people. This is the kind of stuff science and technology was made for.