REGEMAT 3D, a pioneer in the development of 3D bioprinting technologies, and BRECA Healthcare have been making headlines recently, so to learn more we turned to their founder José Baena for an exclusive interview with him about his background, current pursuits, 3D printing culture in Spain, and his ideas about the future as bioprinting comes more into focus
What’s your backstory? I mean, what made you first become interested in bioprinting and how did you translate that interest into the creation of a powerful player in the bioprinting industry?
“I was born in Valencia in October 1983. I studied engineering in Valencia, Spain; Braunschweig, Germany; and Oxford, UK, where I got my MSc in Motorsport engineering supported by the grant program of F1 world champion Fernando Alonso. I have also studies in biomedical engineering in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I am finishing my PhD in Biomedicine in the University of Granada.
Many years ago I decided to focus my career in the intersection between engineering and medical sciences. I could have worked designing cars but medical devices were more motivating and challenging for me. Ten years ago I was a researcher designing custom made implants and thought that 3D printing could be used for doing amazing customized implants. In 2010 I started working on the BRECA Health Care Business plan. The company was founded early 2011, at that time 3D printing was not as popular as it is now. Many people told me I was never going to be able to bring it to clinical applications, but now we have dozens of successfully clinical cases around the world.
Back in 2011 a researcher from the University of Granada asked me to develop a system in which we could print cells rather than Titanium, to solve the problems of apoptosis and de differentiation he had working in 2D cultures. At that time the number of available solutions were 0. This is how I got inside this amazing industry. Some years later I started REGEMAT 3D to bring to society the results of our development from 2011.”
Can you tell me a little bit about your personal vision for 3D bioprinting? While it clearly has implications and applications in a number of fields, what’s the one that makes you most excited to think about?
“I think now bioprinting is in a kind of hype. Biological sciences can benefit a lot from these ranges of different technologies but it is not true that we are going to be printing functional organs in the short term. You can say that to do an IPO and get funding but after some years when results don’t come as expected you are going to fall (such as in the case of Organovo). I saw it also many years ago with 3D printing in medical devices, then after that the curve of expectations decreases, a lot of detractors arise. Only when you can show results does the technology start being used and find a place in the market.
Also it is important to make clear that what we print with a bioprinter is not a tissue; it is a matrix, a scaffold, with cells in 3D that, as we showed many years ago, behave in a similar way to the cells in vivo, but still a further procedure is needed to have the functional tissue implanted. Mechanical stress after printing and other factors play an important role in the outcomes for the tissue. We think of bioprinting as an amazing range of technologies to achieve our aims as researchers that want to mimic living structures but there is still a lot of things to do to cover all tissues. That is why we in REGEMAT 3D offer not just a bioprinting system but a customized one for every specific application.
In the short term we see a lot of opportunities in the combination of 3D printed custom made synthetic medical devices and bioprinted structures to regenerate an injury. In the past if you wanted to do a reconstruction using biomaterials that biodegrade, you were restricted by the geometry and performance of sized medical devices. Now with 3D printing you can offer a customized solution combining a synthetic medical device with a biodegradable bioprinted one and even autologous cells of the patient to enhance the regeneration. Even if you could create functional tissue in the lab, the integration with the surrounding tissues is not going to occur instantly. A custom made synthetic medical device will help to hold the structure and promote the integration of the bioprinted living tissue. There are a lot of opportunities and applications for bioprinting in the short term, even without the printing of living cells.”
When people outside of the field think about bioprinting their heads may be filled with images of ready-to-use organs coming off a print production line; what do you see as the biggest misconception about the possibilities offered through bioprinting?
“There are many misconceptions, as I said we are in a hype nowadays, we can do many many things with bioprinting technologies, but it is important that neither media nor industry not contribute to fostering this misconception. Hope? Yes! There are many things we can do and I am sure in the future we are going to solve many problems with this emerging technologies, but as I always say in my presentations: ‘Keep calm and back to the lab’.”
Living and working in Granada, can you give me an idea of what are the strengths and weaknesses of 3D printing are in Spain itself? Is 3D printing fairly well established as part of the manufacturing culture or is it still a struggle to integrate it into the contemporary marketplace?
“Granada is a wonderful city to live in and start a company. The quality of life is very high, cost of living low, good weather, beautiful sky, and beaches in less than 40 minutes drive. The University of Granada is one of the biggest in Spain with a strong background in medical sciences and engineering. It is easy to find excellent engineers at a very competitive cost, that is one of the reasons our customized model is working, you cannot do it with engineers in USA, Sweden, or Switzerland, for example.
Unfortunately policy makers and the public sector don’t help too much to create an environment of entrepreneurship and innovation. But this is something that happens in many other parts of the world and instead of complaining we focus on the strengths of our country; strong relationship to USA-California, Texas and Florida, and Latin America, big markets and with very different regulations for advanced therapies. And life expectancy in Spain is amongst the 5 highest in the world, as well as being a world leader in transplants and organ donation…
About 3D printing in Spain nowadays you can find a lot of people working in 3D printing, many of them leading this revolution in its category. Of course it is not the best country to raise a lot of money and buy expensive industrial systems, but with the boom of DIY and our creativity I think Spain is doing quite well in 3D printing. Also conventional industries as aeronautics are incorporating more and more 3D printing in their day to day activity. And in the medical devices area and bioprinting it is also well positioned with our 2 companies that are bringing their products to more than 20 countries.”
What do you see as the next big issue to be addressed in 3D bioprinting?
“For me 3D bioprinting is another technology, actually a range of different technologies, to create living tissues, that has a lot of potential in offering solutions for many of the medical problems we face today. But there are still a lot of things to do. In my opinion, after the current hype it is important to have solid results that help bring the technology to specific applications. Both technical improvements and regulatory achievements are the biggest issues to be addressed. As in the 3D printing of medical devices industry, that I know quite well from many years, it is a matter of effort and time to get the right results and validation to be able to move from lab to bed.
But if we forget about functional organs in the short term, just in the combination of custom made medical devices and scaffolds enriched with cells, even in the surgery theater, to avoid some regulatory issues, the range of application even with already cleared and easily able to be printed biomaterials is huge, and the benefits for the patient high.”
You are also behind the startup BRECA Health Care, which specializes in the design and manufacture of custom-made medical devices, and recently you’ve been working to provide surgical guides for pediatric neurosurgery. What has been the greatest challenge you faced in developing this product?
“This product is a very good example of how a technology in a new area can solve a lot of problems in a very easy and cost competitive way. It is very interesting to sit down with specialized surgeons and engineers to share impressions and opinions. Sometimes, as in this case, you find easily a very innovative problem solving solution in a very short time. Now we have treated over 10 patients in a pilot study and the results are incredible.”
You seem to be able to keep a lot of balls in the air at once. Aside from Regemet and BRECA are there any other ventures that you are involved in that we should know about?
“Not really. Sometimes I teach in business schools or universities but just a few hours a year. In the past, I have helped another projects but just in the very short term. I get quite a lot of proposals for new technology based ventures as my technical background is quite broad, but I don’t want to lose the focus, as the activity associated with my two companies and their internationalization, and my hobby, research and science, take all my time. I am in health care as a vocation and I don’t want to spend time in other sectors. I could be designing F1 cars, but I prefer to work on the most amazing machine of the world, the human being. There are still many things to do and at the end of the day we want new health care solutions, because at some point in our lives we all are going to need it. This is the only race I want to be involved in.
In the next years I will also like to start my nonprofit foundation to show children the amazing world of biomedicine and biomedical engineering and help to increase the number of people that spend their lives looking for solutions for other people using innovation, science and technology.”
What are your hopes for your companies in the coming year? How about in the longer term?
“We want to keep developing new customized solutions with BRECA Health Care and with REGEMAT 3D and help our users keep producing the results that help bring new solutions based on bioprinting and regenerative medicine to patients.
For us this is not about selling a lot of machines, it is about the results and the quality. There are another bioprinting companies that are selling this kind of machines ‘in batch,’ saying that with one system you can print many different tissues. This is not true. Researchers want to innovate, they want to create unique things and accordingly they need unique systems. A bioprinter is not a microwave. That is why based on our software and hardware we customize the system to the application. We recommend them to start with V1 and once they know the technology better, we develop a customized one and replace the other one.
We focus on quality, not on quantity. We get involved in the research project with our users, we want them to get results that help us to bring from lab to bed as many innovative therapies as we can. There are still many milestones to overcome in bioprinting to create functional tissues, don’t be fooled by the current hype. We are working on that. We were already successful in bringing 3D printed implants and prosthesis with BRECA Health Care to the clinical application and the results are incredible. It is a matter of time and effort.
We see other companies doing IPOs and a lot of marketing focusing on batch production and the market of labs. But in my opinion this is not going to succeed as in an IPO founders lose control and need to increase the structure costs and lose flexibility, if the results don’t come then you are in trouble. And although the lab market is more mature than others for bioprinting products, researchers want to do unique things, so they need unique devices. Also having a strong background in the clinical practice makes a difference in the mid and long term. Other bioprinting companies do not have this background, nor do they have the sales network for medical devices we have created during the last years.
I think ours is the model that is going to succeed in the medium and long term. I am not new in the industry. In the last 7 years I saw many startups fall. For us it is important to base our activity strongly and move with the right timing. In my book Emprender Carreras, I explain the methodologies that we use to make decisions based on planning data acquisition and creating models to evaluate different scenarios.
We are also planning our next funding round now, the right one to achieve the right aims. Going too slow may be a problem but going too fast too.”
What advice would you give to the next generation of would-be 3D print experts as they prepare themselves?
“It’s always hard to give advice, but I will try. Focus on the application and work backwards to the technology to reach your goals, not the other way round.”
[Images: REGEMAT 3D]