You could say that Erik Gatenholm has a nose for business. An ear, too. And potentially a liver, a kidney, a heart, a…. The 28-year-old biotech entrepreneur, and C2 Montréal 2018 speaker, is the co-founder and CEO of extraordinarily successful, Gothenburg, Sweden-based CELLINK, the first bioink company in the world. Moreover, Erik and CELLINK are at the forefront of a field of medical practice – bioprinting human tissues and organs – that is on the cusp of transforming healthcare.
Co-founded with CTO and tissue engineer Hector Martinez, the now two-year-old CELLINK has pioneered several different varieties of bioink – materials that mimic the natural environment that cells grow in, and which can be mixed with living cells to create functional human tissues with a 3D printer.
CELLINK’s current focus is on the development of bioinks specific to different types of tissues, as well as the printing of human tissues and organs that can be used for the development of pharmaceutical drugs and cosmetic products. Need a liver for toxicology testing? They’ll help you whip one (or as many as you need) up.
Erik took time away from his booming business – CELLINK now has offices in the U.S. and Japan – to speak to C2 about this ground-breaking technology and how he manages the rapid growth that’s come in its wake.
What you guys are doing is, frankly, mind-blowing. How close are you to creating viable, usable human tissue? Is there someone walking around with an ear that you helped make?
“[Laughs] No, not yet. I think, looking into the future, we’re about 10 to 15 years away from printing functional ear tissue for implantation. But what our tissue is already being used for today is research. For instance, if somebody wants to develop a new drug and test it on a patient with a cancer tumour, and see which drug works best on that patient, we could print that patient’s tumour many, many times with our bioprinters and ink and then test the drugs on it.”
Do you ever stop to think about the fact that you’re on the verge of helping revolutionize medicine in a way that hasn’t been done since, probably, the first organ transplant?
“We don’t get much time to think, to be honest [laughs]. We’ll take some time off in the future to think about the achievements, but now it’s a matter of running as fast as we can so we can help our customers.”
CELLINK went from two people to 30 in under a year. How does one manage that kind of growth while staying focused on the task at hand?
“That’s a really good question. Of course, there are a lot of fires every day, and you’ve got to put out those fires, but if you narrow it down to two or three things to focus on every single day, things come easier.”
The three things Erik focuses on every day:
1) Customer satisfaction. “I essentially revolve my day around making sure that any customer interaction I have is positive. I make sure that my customers have good systems, make sure that they’re happy with the product, and I make sure that we develop systems that future customers will be happy about.”
2) Sales. “That’s essential, and I make sure to always sell. If you don’t yell it, you don’t sell it.”
3) The team. “This is probably the most important thing, being able to have a good relationship and continuously motivate and push the team forward.”
“When you narrow it down to those three things,” says Erik, “most other things will take care of themselves.”
CELLINK was listed on NASDAQ’s First North market within 10 months of launching – what was it about CELLINK that captured the imagination of so many investors?
“After three months of operations, we were profitable, and that’s unheard of in the biotechnology industry. So we really reduced the financial risk for the investors that came on board by having some revenues and income that we could back up the corporation with… We actually had substance, we had pending patents, we had products, things were already rolling. So 10 months for us would maybe be two or three years for another company.
Looking down the road, what do you think the biggest challenge will be for your industry?
“The challenges will definitely be regulatory. How will the FDA and all the regulatory organizations look at this, and how will they prepare for bioprinted tissue, and how will they utilize it in their evaluations? We need to make sure that we can use the benefits of this technology safely. And those things have not been established yet, and that needs to be done.”
Have you hit any walls thus far in your journey?
“I hit walls every day [laughs]. My head is so flat. We hit a lot of walls, y’know, that’s just kind of the nature of it. I was actually just talking to Hector, the other co-founder, and we were saying while we were driving that, man, we take a lot of shit. And I think that’s important. At a certain point of your life you’ve got to be ready to take a lot of shit, and then do a lot of fundamental work.”
Speaking of points of life, you’re still a young guy, and your work must eat most of your day. When do you get a chance to do normal twentysomething things?
“Oh, I’ve done plenty of them [laughs]. I have done plenty of twentysomething things.”
Sweden’s always had a very happening music scene. You played in bands growing up – do you still do that?
“No, I don’t unfortunately, those were the good old days. Those were fun days, and I think I learned a lot by playing in bands and managing music. It’s the same thing, essentially: you find gigs, you perform well, and then you sell a lot of CDs. I didn’t sell too many CDs though [laughs]. But I learned how to do it – and how not to do it!”
Erik Gatenholm will speak in the 360 Big Top at C2 Montréal 2018 (pillar: Science & Technology).
To see the complete list of speakers (so far), please go here.