Gothenburg-based Cellink is a 3D bioprinting company and was one of the first companies in the world to offer 3D printable bioink, which is used to print human organs and tissues. In just three years of existence, the company has been able to commercialise products used in more than 600 labs and 50 countries. The startup has made such advances as creating the first 3D bioprinted cornea, and recently came out with the first holographic bioprinter called Holograph X. In 2017, Cellink’s IPO was more than 1070% over-subscribed and the founder Erik Gatenholm was also placed on the Forbes’ “30 under 30” list in 2018.
Below, we interview Erik about his background, 3D bioprinting, CELLINK’s journey, the evolution of medtech, his advice to other startup founders, and more!
What’s your background, and how did you come up with the idea for CELLINK?
I realised I wanted to be an entrepreneur early on in life. My passion for creating something that would make a positive impact on the world is what has driven me from a young age. I’ve always had a great passion for doing something good and to show compassion for people. At 18 years old, I started my first biomedical device company BC Genesis during my freshman year at Virginia Tech to commercialise a licensed university technology. BC Genesis focused on developing cellulose-based medical implants for applications such as meniscus and cartilage repair, as well as surgical meshes. I studied business management during my undergrad and moved to Sweden to complete my MBA in innovation and industrial management at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Business.
As I learned more about biotech and innovation, I knew I wanted to start a business that would revolutionise 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. In the 3D printing field, we understood that it was all about the filaments when prototyping. We realized, however, that there was no place to purchase bioink 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. And it was for $500. After several more orders came in within the coming weeks, we realised the enormous potential our product had. Thus, CELLINK was born and became the first company to commercialise a universal bioink for bioprinting of human tissues and organs.
Tell us more about 3D bioprinting, and CELLINK’s technology and solutions. Can you give us any real life success stories of their applications?
Scientists have been working with 3D bioprinting since the early 80s but only within the past five years has bioprinting began to make a huge impact. My company CELLINK, amongst a few others, have developed affordable bioprinting technology solutions. Prior to this, bioprinters were primarily only available to labs with heavy funding. Our goal at CELLINK has been to provide cost-effective technology to enable scientist to further their research through 3D bioprinting. We understand that the next medical revolution could come from anywhere in the world and that we can only empower scientists and researchers if we democratize the technology and make it available to everyone. Our technology has been behind many successful advances such as the first 3D bioprinted cornea, the successful implantation of human cartilage cells in baby mice, replicating cancer tumors to help identify the best patient-specific treatment and more. We continue to see our collaborators making strides on a regular basis.
You just launched in 2016 and have already gone public. What has your journey been like since you started, and what challenges did you face when starting out?
We have been going a million miles a minute since day one. It has been super exciting and it’s only getting better every day. My co-founder and I made it a point to onboard other individuals who shared our drive and devotion for this industry to experience this journey together. The biggest reason behind our success is definitely the team we have been able to build and the culture we have established at CELLINK. Everyone is so determined and motivated to change the world together. Our strong team has empowered us to work at a rapid pace to quickly scale our business. When you undergo exponential growth, one of the biggest challenges you often face is keeping up with the growth throughout various areas in your business. The demand was high and outweighed our manpower when starting out. In under three years, we have grown from 2 to nearly 100 employees. There are so many things that change in your business such as company dynamics, culture and just the way the business operates in general. You need to make sure you value and pay attention to all aspects of your business so you don’t fall behind.
What have been your greatest successes so far, and to what do you attribute them?
I believe our greatest success has been being able to provide affordable technology that has assisted scientists in groundbreaking research. In just three years, our technology is in over 600+ labs and 50+ countries. We have been able to transform the bioprinting industry together with our colleagues and customers. At CELLINK, we facilitate relationships and partnerships with leading researchers from top tier research institutions and companies. We work alongside them to help with their every need to get them on the path towards success in their lab. I believe we are able to accomplish this due to our strong belief in customer support and providing a diverse mix of industry professionals on our team. We do our own in-house research with our technology which helps us understand our community along with how we can best aid them.
How have you seen the medtech industry change over the past 10 years?
Very much. As I noted before, the advances in science today were not possible at the same pace 10 years ago. Economical pricing on innovative technologies will continue to make a strong impact in a variety of sectors within medtech. The medtech industry is typically very stale and slow moving. We are changing this. We are making medtech sexy and fun. We want students to select bioengineering and science as their education because that’s where the future is!
Is your industry very competitive, or are their other startups developing complementary technologies that you’re collaborating with?
We are extremely keen on working together with other companies in our space to co-create the best technologies possible. We recently came out with the first holographic bioprinter called Holograph X with Silicon Valley based biotech company Prellis. The industry is becoming more competitive but we believe working together will do far more than working alone. We greatly value the various partnerships we have developed throughout the last few years and look forward to continuing to do so. We also understand that to make the best out of this industry, we have to collaborate with the customer. Simply selling a system or a bioink cartridge will not change the world.
What advice would you give to other startup founders?
Make sure you are passionate about what you’re doing. Your work becomes your life in a way you can never experience nor understand outside of being an entrepreneur. You will eat, sleep and breathe your startup. I wake up every single day feeling motivated and excited about what’s to come because of the passion I have for my company. And be ready to be surprised. If you are not open to daily changes, even hourly changes, then you are in for a ride that you might not enjoy. What I love the most about the business is that I get to meet amazing people, work with them, and if I’m lucky, they’ll join our journey by my side.
Are you currently developing any other solutions? Where do you see CELLINK in another 3-4 years?
As a fast moving tech company, we are developing new solutions on a daily basis. In January, we released our first new product of the year, Cellcyte, a microscopy platform used to study 3D bioprinted cells in a continuous manner. The CELLCYTE X is a revolutionary live-cell imaging system that essentially lets you monitor your cells all day long and see what they are doing. See if they are happy or unhappy and if they are ready to be bioprinted. Our team is working around the clock to provide scientists with the tools needed to be successful with 3D bioprinting. In another 3-4 years, I believe we will continue to foster new innovative tools to help the world of medtech progress with drug discovery, disease research and make headway on the path towards bioprinted organs.