For as far back as he can remember, says Tamer Mohamed, he has always been intrigued by how things were built.
“When I think of engineering, I think of building things from the ground up. When I think of biology, on the other hand, I think of dissecting the human body down to its individual cells,” the young biomedical engineer told a very engaged crowd during a TEDx talk in Stanley Park in Vancouver this spring.
He might as well have been describing his team back at the Aspect Biosystems facilities which are about a 25-minute drive away from where he was talking. Tame, who is the president and CEO of Aspect, leads a group of engineers, biologists, scientists, and clinicians. They work on a range of projects which primarily involve using a proprietary 3D bio-printing technology to print tissue cells which are then used to create structures that resemble human body parts such as a meniscus or an airway.
The first time I spoke with Tamer, was during an event in Toronto hosted by the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM). He was among the participants of a mock business pitch competition for biotech start-ups. They were not really competing for funding. The Dragons’ Den-style contest was meant to sharpen the business smarts of scientists.
Tamer didn’t win the top prize that day. But it probably should be taken as an indication of his business acumen.
Some six months earlier, the company had just signed a deal with Johnson and Johnson Innovation that will see Aspect’s Lab-on-a-Printer 3D bio-printing platform used to develop bio-printed knee meniscus tissue suitable for surgical therapy. The meniscus is the “shock absorber” of the knee. It is also one of the most commonly injured parts of the knee, especially among aging people.
Aspect was already making waves in the global tissue engineering space which is expected to be worth about US$11.53 billion by 2022. It had become pretty difficult not to run into the name of the company, whenever you made a Web search for 3D bio-printing.
This September, Tamer was selected by Business in Vancouver for their annual Forty Under 40 Awards. During the same month, Aspect was named one of the CIX (Canadian Innovation Exchange) Top 20 Most Innovative Canadian Technology Companies. And before that, in June, Aspect won the Most Promising Startup of 2017 award from Metabridge, an organization of technology CEO’s and founders that seeks to connect Silicon Valley tech start-ups with the counterparts from British Columbia.
Not too bad for a small biotech firm which only spun out of the University of British Columbia not more than four years ago.
Aspect emerged from what Tamer calls as “a world-class collaboration” between a research group in UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science focused developing advanced printing technology for the creation of functional structures and a research group in the Faculty of Medicine focused on heart and lung disease research. To this day some members of that group remain with Aspect which is still pursuing the group’s fundamental mission.
Tamer, Ali Ahmadi, Simon Beyer, Anas Bsaul, Kelly He, and Shang Pan were conducting a bio-printing research in the Walus Lab which was founded by Dr. Konrad Walus within the Faculty of Applied Science and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UBC.
The project involved “the design, fabrication, and characterization of inkjet printing technology that enables its integration with a common microfluidic module.”
“We have termed this concept as Lab-on-a-Printer, an extension to the well-known Lab-on-a-Chip concept. Such platform will enable on-chip processing of microfluids followed by their direct printing. Potential fields where this platform can be used include, but not limited to, combinatorial chemistry, tissue engineering, and printable electronics,” according to the Walus Lab research team.
They envisioned the technology helping cut down the number of drug candidates prior to clinical trial, thus drastically reducing the time of development and the cost of drugs. 3D cell-based constructs could also reduce the need for animal testing in the drug development process.
Today, Tamer is president and CEO of Aspect, Walus is chief technology officer of the company, Beyer is chief product officer, and Sam Wadsworth, a former post-doctoral research fellow at the UBC Institute for Heart and Lung Innovation, is Aspects’ chief science officer.
Aspect’s Lab-on-a-Printer technology is being developed to allow for the complex bio-fabrication of heterogeneous 3D tissues.
The platform integrates modular and disposable microfluidic print head cartridges. The print heads can accommodate various types of low and medium viscosity bioinks. This allows a range of cell type to be combined in a single print.
“We believe out Lab-on-a-Printer bio-printing technology has broad applicability and enables the production of common tissues for multiple applications in the life sciences, including pre-clinical disease modeling for drug development and clinical tissue therapies for regenerative medicines,” said Tamer. “By combining our platform expertise with the domain expertise in the field, we believe we could more quickly unlock the potential of bio-printing technology.”
Another key proprietary invention of Aspect is the 3DBioRin Airway. According to the company, the Airway is the world’s first 3D printed airway tissue that exhibits highly physiological contraction and relaxation responses in an in vitro setting.
The platform can be tailored for specific needs including modifying cell types, cell density, cellular microenvironment, tissue architecture, and tissue stiffness.
The importance of collaborations
Tamer’s advice to biotech start-ups if to “cultivate an environment of collaboration” and “build your network before you need it.”
Collaborations are key to Aspect’s strategy for funding its R&D.
In mid-September this year, the company announced that it had completed its first institutionally led round of financing.
The private financing round was led by Pangaea Ventures and included investments by Endure Capital, Pallasite Ventures, Relentless Pursuit Partners, and other new and existing investors.
Aspect will use the financing to fund ongoing technology and product development, expand its strategic partnerships and speed up the commercialization of its bio-printing platform.
A few days before that announcement, Aspect also sealed a collaboration deal with InSCREENeX GmbH of Germany and Fraunhofer ITEM (Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine, Hannover, Germany).
The collaboration will expand the applications of Aspect’s 3DBioRing muscle tissue platform for use in developing models of other tissues including blood vessels, heart, and lung tissues.
“Personalized in vitro test systems that recreate the disease in a dish will take future drug development and regenerative medicine approaches to the next level,” according to Dr. Tobias May, CEO of InSCREENeX. “…we will join forces to develop unique personalized cell systems. These expandable and physiologically relevant cell systems will be used as building blocks to bio-print contractile tissues with unparalleled physiology.”
One way of measuring a company’s true worth, according to Tamer is by obtaining third-party validation through partnerships with best-in-class pharma and biotech companies, thought leaders and top investors.
“Biotechnology companies are usually in the business of burning money for years and it is usually at least a decade until a company is able to demonstrate the meaningful value of patents,” Tamer explained. “Aspect has been fortunate to form collaborations with some of the biggest names in pharma and world-class academic researchers and bring on quality investors who believe in our bold vision.”
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