CELLINK‘s rise from a bioink startup to a bioprinting market global leader has been lightning fast. In 2015, I did my first interview with founders Erik Gatenholm (CEO), Hector Martinez Avila (CTO) and Gusten Danielsson (CFO) about the launch of their very first bioink at a time when bioprinting was starting to become more widely available. Half a year later they were launching their first desktop system, the INKREDIBLE. Then, with just the time for a quick and “inkredibly” coincidental meeting with Erik on a ferry in Croatia, the next thing I knew, CELLINK became a public company, with over $7 million in yearly revenues and a truly global presence, with HQ’s in Boston, MA and Gothenburg, Sweden.
Now, there is just no stopping CELLINK. Earlier this month—and within just seven days—the company completed its first acquisition, Dispendix, for $5 million and closed impressive partnerships with Prellis Biologic to co-produce the Holograph-X volumetric 3D bioprinter, and MedImmune, on drug development testing (DDT). These are not just random operations but are part of a clear and sound strategy to dominate the bioprinting market in the years to come. What does that mean for the bioprinting industry and for the future of tissue (and eventually organ) printing? CELLINK founder and CEO, Erik Gatenholm, explains it all in this exclusive interview.
3dpbm: How would you describe CELLINK’s business model?
Erik Gatenholm: “We focus on the development and commercialization of bioprinting technologies that allow researchers to 3D print human organs and tissues for the development of pharmaceutical and cosmetic products and, in the future, for clinical applications. CELLINK’s innovative and patent-pending bioink is a biomaterial innovation that enables human cells to grow and thrive as they would in the natural human body environment. Today, our technology platform is being used to print tissues such as liver, cartilage, skin, and even fully functional cancer tumors that can then be used to develop new cancer treatments. We have commercialized products in more than 50 countries and sold to hundreds of prestigious labs around the world, such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford and the FDA.”
3dpbm: In the last fiscal year, CELLINK revenues grew 196% to over $7 million. Net turnover grew even more, by 245%, and you just issued nearly $14 million in new shares. How do you explain this success in a segment like bioprinting which was previously not particularly market-oriented?
EG: “What we did is provide a way to make companies and users comfortable with using this technology without having to invest too much financial or educational capital. Other companies took a similar approach but we decided to start by providing a really good bioink and building a trusting relationship with our customers. Once they were able to trust our materials, they also came to trust our printers. And now that goes both way. So we are building a great business by continuously expanding our offer of both hardware and materials. It became a journey to prove ourselves to our customers and win their trust. The fact that we’ve grown over 200% year on year shows that we learned what our users really want and the secret to that is being close to your customers and listening to them. Just last year I spent over 280 days traveling to visit our users and prospective users. I spent time with them, working with them, learning what they’re working on and teaching them how to use our technology; and that’s a sacrifice that I am more than willing to make.”
3dpbm: At the same time you also decided to leave your systems open so that they support any type of materials, not just CELLINK’s…
EG: “I think providing systems that are both easy and open to use, that enable the user to do what they really want was the key to establishing a solid customer base. We provided an open source platform that was technologically advanced but also at an accessible price point. As we progress we can focus more on innovation and on more complex and advanced features.”
3dpbm: Would you say that your approach makes you a little bit like the Formlabs or the Ultimaker of bioprinting?
EG: “Ultimaker is a great company and I love Formlabs as well. They’re so innovative and they’ve managed to grow so rapidly. I think that we are definitely that type of company within the bioprinting space. At the same time, due to the fact that our customers and researchers are always looking for more advanced technologies, we decided to push towards more advanced and complex systems and that’s where the recent partnerships and acquisitions came into play.”
EG: “I think one key aspect to consider is that we are able to do what we are doing because the road ahead is wide open. Nobody’s trying to push us out of the way, so it’s very important that we do what we think is right and that we have the support from our investors and customers to move towards our vision of making bioprinting and, eventually, organ printing a reality. That’s really why we partnered up with Prellis: they have developed a new holographic technology platform that bioprinting users haven’t been able to utilize in the past. And it has enormous potential.”
3dpbm: What about the $5 million acquisition of Dispendix?
EG: “This project is more short-term and focuses on commercial applications for the pharmaceutical industry. Pharma companies are increasingly looking to bioprint tissues faster and at lower costs. Dispendix developed a technology they called the I-DOT system. It is a very fast dispenser that is capable of printing using single cells. This way we can cover both sides of the market: ultra-high resolution with Prellis’ holographic bioprinter and high-speed with Dispendix’s drop on demand system. In addition, we will be combining the Bio X’s extrusion capabilities to bioprint macroscopic tissue, with the Holograph-X system in order to produce the vasculature and the blood vessels.”
3dpbm: So where is the market heading now? Who do you think are going to be your biggest clients over the next ten years?
EG: “I think it’s going to be mainly pharmaceutical companies, initially. We expect that they will continue to purchase systems for internal research and eventually for some production. Mainly, they are bioprinting tissue for drug development research activities. For example, we just signed a contract with Medimmune specifically to use our technology, our bioprinters and bioinks to print human tissues and then use it to develop new, highly customized drugs and treatments.”
3dpbm: Which are the biggest challenges you face now?
EG: “So the big challenge we have is, of course, recruitment. We are expanding so quickly and we’re trying to find people fast enough but it is taking a lot of time. We want to find the best and finding people in Boston, getting them settled in, is quite challenging. We are now 108 people worldwide, which is quite impressive in such a short time. Our all-star team is truly what has enabled us to grow so rapidly. CELLINKIAN’s are extremely passionate about the company and our vision.”
3dpbm: What about meeting demand? Are your production capabilities at full regime?
EG: “Generally, yes. With the BIO X we were a bit slower in delivering over the summer because we had a lot of orders. Typically it takes six to eight weeks, but during the summer it was even up to ten. Now it’s back to about four to six weeks. We’re getting better. We’ve hired a lot of people in production and our new production manager is a champion. I think that’s the department that we’ve hired in most in the last couple of weeks. We are not up to Formlabs’ level yet, where they’re delivering in a matter of days. We’re pushing it. Every day we’re trying to get better and better at the production, but we still make everything in-house. Our people are so proud of the product, they’re proud that they make them themselves and they’re proud that our users do such amazing things with them.”
3dpbm: You’re producing the machines both in the U.S. and in Sweden?
EG: “Yes. We have some production in the U.S. and we some production in Sweden. We have also implemented the production of bioinks both the U.S. and in Sweden. The U.S. market is the largest for us. It is a key market, and we’re trying to serve it in a way that is ideal for our American customers. Both Europe and Asia are served from our facilities in Sweden.”
3dpbm: How many products do you have on the market now? How many bioinks and how many different machines?
EG: “There are four extrusion-based machines. The first was the INKREDIBLE. Then we launched the INKREDIBLE Plus, followed by the CELLINK GO which is targeted at high schools and the education field in general. We have the BIO X which is our high-end extrusion system. Then we have the new systems from Prellis and Dispendix: the Holograph-X and the Single Cell Printer. These are already available on the market. In terms of bioinks, I believe we have now introduced between 30 and 35 different types of materials. While systems do have a much higher unit price, bioinks are the fastest growing revenue segment.”
3dpbm: Do you think that this indicates that bioprinting is also moving toward production?
EG: “We are finally moving into an application-driven market. About a year ago, the last time we spoke, we were discussing how to get bioprinting to focus more on exploring applications. That time is now approaching rapidly and to make it happen we have been working really hard. We have been traveling all over to visit our customers and putting in 16 hours workdays. We have been pushing harder and faster because we are driven by a vision and a passion to contribute to building the future of medicine.”
CELLINK 2018 Highlights:
- Net turnover of SEK 45,337 thousand (SEK 13,159 thousand), an increase of 245% against the previous accounting year
- Operating revenues, including capitalized work for own account and changes in inventory, amounted to SEK 64,444 thousand (SEK 21,876 thousand), an increase of 196% against the previous accounting year
- On 8 January the company announced a collaboration agreement with CTIBIOTECH to print human cancer tumor tissues
- On 17 January the company announced its establishment of a research and development laboratory in AstraZeneca’s BioVentureHub
- On 1 February CELLINK advised it would be opening an office at Kyoto University in Japan
- On 8 February CELLINK advised it would be launching CELLINK X Bioinks
- On 19 March CELLINK published an article on bioink together with researchers, the article was published in Bioprinting and dealt with the different features of bioink
- On 9 April CELLINK won the Red Dot Award for BIO X
- On 13 April CELLINK launched 7 new bioinks, 3 new kits of GelMA and enabled the 3D bioprinting of multifaceted vascular networks
- On 19 April CELLINK entered into a partnership with ARMI BioFab USA, and the UNH Manchester for events dealing with regenerative production
- On 23 April CELLINK appointed Carnegie Investment Bank AB (publ) as its financial advisor
- On 2 May CELLINK launched a new pedagogic platform for bioprinting: CELLINK GO – developed to revolutionize education 4
- On 3 May CELLINK changed its Certified Adviser to Erik Penser Bank AB
- On 4 May CELLINK published news of a cooperating partner that 3D bioprints human heart valve disease models with nanoindentation-based biomechanics
- On 11 May CELLINK received an order for SEK 3.5 million from a distributor
- On 1 June CELLINK published news on the ground-breaking 3D-bioprinting of the first human corneas by customer and technology users at Newcastle University
- On 4 June CELLINK completed a targeted new share issue of SEK 100,259,570
- On 4 July CELLINK published research achievements involving the company´s ink
- On 16 July the company announced that the company have been granted project funding of SEK 25 million from EU
- On 27 August CELLINK launched new bioink based on laminins
- On 4 September CELLINK published three new research achievements made with the company´s products
- On 11 September the company announced that Dr. Mina Bisell enters CELLINKS Advisory Board
- On 2 October the company announced they have been granted project funding of SEK 3 million from EU Events during the fiscal year (September 2017 – August 2018)
- On 25 September CELLINK was awarded a registered design patent for its product BIO X
- On 27 September CELLINK announced a collaboration agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- On 6 October a targeted new share issue of SEK 30 million was made to Handelsbanken Funds
- On 15 November CELLINK announced a collaboration on development with Takara Bio
- On 27 November the company advised that it had been granted project funding from the EU of SEK 3.5 million.