Startup Accelerator: Volumetric Aims to Be the Tissue Bioprinting Farm of the Future

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Startup Accelerator is an article series with a focus on new and exciting companies in the 3D printing space, in which 3DPrint.com speaks to startup leadership about their unique technologies and businesses. 

At one of the largest medical cities in the world, a startup is pushing the limits of bioprinting technology by harnessing the power and precision of light to structure living tissue. Born as a spin-off out of Rice University, Volumetric has come a long way since being founded in 2018, advancing the creation of biomaterials and a biofabrication platform for cancer research, regenerative medicine, and human organ replacement initiatives worldwide.

Efforts to reproduce the vascular architecture in the body have led Jordan Miller, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University, and one of his bioengineering graduate students, Bagrat Grigoryan, to create Volumetric. The duo has been focusing on innovation that allows scientists to create exquisitely entangled vascular networks that mimic the body’s natural passageways for blood, air, lymph, and other vital fluids. Originally dubbed SLATE, which is short for stereolithography apparatus for tissue engineering, the new open-source bioprinting technology uses additive manufacturing to make soft hydrogels and is the basis for the firm’s commercially available technology.

“While most of the attention in tissue engineering typically goes to the progress being done on cells, Volumetric is playing a key role focusing on the extracellular space, that is, what happens outside cells. If we think about solid organs in the body, like the liver, they are very complex biologically, with an intricate blood vessel structure. What is most apparent in that complexity, is the complexity of the architecture,” Miller said to 3DPrint.com. “There is a fantastic progress on the cell side as researchers are finding newer and better ways to grow cells, differentiate cells, taking stem cells, and making them into organ-specific functions, however, everything outside of the cell is part of our expert research.” 

With so much research to back up their development, Miller and Grigoryan were confident that commercializing the technology they developed at the lab was the next step. After licensing, it became the basis for the LumenX bioprinters that are manufactured through a partnership between Volumetric and Cellink – one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies.

Designed as an entry-level platform to build vasculature, the LumenX achieves complex branching and tapering of vessels. Moreover, the founders claim that the device photographically cures entire layers at once to crosslink structures 50 times faster than other printing methods. This process is performed with incredible resolution, leveraging more than one million simultaneous points of light to bioprint microscopic features down to 200 microns.

“As we were creating this technology at the research lab, we immediately began thinking about its potential in society,” suggested Miller. “We understood that we wanted to take our basic research out of the lab and into the clinical practice where it would have an impact. So, to translate our technology, we knew that it would have to be commercialized, to stand up as part of a business model that could survive. That is when our research became bigger than just an academic paper. Whereas an academic paper can have an impact on people’s mindsets, a commercialized product can have a big impact directly on people’s lives.”

The LumenX by Volumetric and Cellink (Image courtesy of Cellink/Volumetric)

So, the company was born out of huge progress that the team made at the lab, plus, dozens of requests from fellow researchers who wanted to use Volumetric’s technology to develop their own projects. Miller and Grigoryan licensed their own intellectual property out of the university and into the company Volumetric, and they have been using it to sell bioinks and bioprinters ever since.

“This is a very exciting opportunity, because when there is a scientific finding in a research lab, it is not always obvious how it can translate into a direct impact for society, but commercialization is a way to address this issue.”

Creating high-quality biomaterials and 3D biofabrication platforms are part of Volumetric’s mission. Aside from LumenX, Volumetric founders also developed the only cell-compatible biomaterials on the market for light-based printing, ideal for creating vascular networks within cell-laden hydrogels or lab-on-a-chip devices. The company is pushing the limits in the field of bioprinting by incorporating the unique ability of its technology to print complex, 3D vascularized living tissue, one of the most advanced and hard to mimic tissues in the field.

Multilayer 3D microfluidic plastic chips can be rapidly printed in minutes with the LumenX (Image courtesy of Volumetric/Cellink)

After witnessing successful university spin-off companies emerge around the world, one thing is clear, a major challenge for many startups is related to funding. However, Miller and Grigoryan were able to tap into the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its Innovation Corps program to get most of the funding for their collaboration, and in just two years, the startup has become a strong seller of specialized printers and hydrogel bioinks for printing tissue constructs.

Another great advantage of the company is its location, right at the heart of the Texas Medical Center (TMC), in Houston, working out of Johnson & Johnson Innovation (also known as JLABS), a global network ecosystem that empowers inventors across a broad healthcare spectrum to accelerate the delivery of life-saving, life-enhancing health and wellness solutions to patients around the world. It is by far one of the largest medical centers worldwide and a place where clinicians and surgeons are eager to see bioprinting technology, like Volumetric’s, translated from bench to bedside. 

“Clinicians see first hand the need and urgency for replacement tissues to work. Which led us to craft a clinical strategy for a potential organ we could produce, how we would go about producing it, how we would design the clinical trials, and what early studies need to be complete in order to get there,” Miller described. “Our work goes beyond just theories, it’s about actually having surgeons work with our tissue scaffolds, to determine whether the material can be implantable. We need to know if they can put a suture through it and pull without the suture coming right out. We know that our work involves thinking about optimizing the material for the cells, but also for the surgeon.”

Although Volumetric still has a lot of work ahead, more than 20 years of experience in bioengineering are helping Miller find a balance for both cells and surgeons to strive. 

Jordan Miller and Bagrat Grigoryan in 2018 after founding Volumetric (Image courtesy of Volumetric)

Miller has a very particular vision for Volumetric’s future, in part because he considers that the technology is highly scalable. He believes that what lies ahead for bioprinting companies like Volumetric is similar to what happened with the Prague-based open-source 3D printing company Prusa, except that in this case, it’s for biofabrication.

“They [Prusa] are using 3D printers to make the parts that they need, relying on a print farm that is running non-stop, and churning out lots of high-value pieces. That is the perfect analogy of what we see for the future of regenerative medicine, where companies, like Volumetric, will develop large bioprinting farms, scaling out living tissue which could eventually become organ and tissue replacements for people.”

The researchers at Volumetric have been working flat-out to provide a blood vessel structure for engineered tissue constructs. This is one of the most difficult feats in the filed, as researchers working towards the biofabrication of artificial vasculature have encountered several challenges to create the functional vessel-like structures that can supply oxygen and nutrients to cells of 3D bioengineered tissues. However, Miller’s advances at his laboratory at Rice and Volumetric led him to create the first bioprinting technology that addresses the challenges of multivascularization:

“Right now, the field of regenerative medicine has the most potential it’s ever had, we know much more about how cells interact with materials than before, and our technology platform is allowing people to go deeper into biology and develop new materials to move the field forward.

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