Two years into the pandemic, entire industries are still suffering the fallout from the unimaginable mass scale of the disease. However, since using biotech could help navigate the ongoing crisis, investor attention to science and medicine has helped reinforce research and development initiatives necessary for the future of healthcare. In fact, investment in biotechnology has reached record levels in the last two years. For example, during the first coronavirus crisis year 2020, the biotech sector raised $20 billion from venture financiers, while smaller biotechs saw a record-breaking $12.8 billion raised through initial public offerings (IPOs), according to Evaluate’s 2020 Review.
Amid this investment frenzy, bioprinting startups have attracted a lot of attention. Today, one of the latest investments in biotechnology comes from New Jersey’s largest healthcare network, non-profit organization Hackensack Meridian Health. Through its innovation program known as Bear’s Den, the institution announced it would back bioprinting startup FluidForm to advance critical tissue applications for drug discovery, surgical repair and collaborate on preclinical work in 2022. This new affiliation is a major step forward for FluidForm, especially amid the company’s rapid growth.
Built on the foundation that recreating functional human tissue has the potential to transform health, FluidForm seeks to deliver on the promise of tissue therapies that can radically improve a patient’s life and longevity. Since its inception in 2018, the Carnegie Mellon University spinout company, co-founded by Biomedical Engineering Professor Adam Feinberg, has been expanding the use of its patented and award-winning Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels (FRESH) bioprinting technology across various applications.
So far, FluidForm’s FRESH printing has been proven to recreate biology, from structure to function. In the last three years, the technology has gained a lot of publicity, primarily after it was used to rebuild functional components of the human heart spanning from small blood vessels to valves and beating ventricles. This work is possible thanks to FRESH’s embedded printing approach, which relies on a temporary support gel to print complex scaffolds using collagen in its native unmodified form. Through this technique, researchers can 3D print soft and dynamic biological materials with high fidelity beyond a few layers in height.
When Feinberg and his team set out to create and commercialize FRESH, they believed in changing how tissues can be engineered. By leveraging the latest advances in synthetic biology, 3D printing, advanced materials, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning, they wanted to “build tissue inspired by the way the body does.” Today, the startup can boast having accomplished several key milestones, including a pilot biofabrication line outside of Boston; grants from U.S. government agencies, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) for foundational work on key programs; and collaborating with multiple top life science firms, like Ethicon, a member of the Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies.
Commenting on the deal, Michael Graffeo, CEO and co-founder of FluidForm, said that clinical input and partnerships are a vital element of its successful growth, especially as it continues to advance leading tissue applications.
This investment in Fluid Form is Hackensack Meridian Health’s sixth through the Bear’s Den program, which seeks to drive medical science forward by supporting strategic candidates in biotech and pharma. Previously, the Bear’s Den supported the clinical development of a highly-differentiated immuno-oncology platform by Boston-based company Alloplex Biotherapeutics; Brooklyn regenerative medicine startup EpiBone, which is growing bone and cartilage grafts using stem cell and 3D imaging technologies; and clinical-stage biotechnology company Adaptive Phage Therapeutics (APT)’s precision-targeted and highly purified viruses known as bacteriophages, used to battle the toughest multi-drug resistant “superbugs.”
Launched in 2017, Bear’s Den features a panel of experts, including Hackensack Meridian Health CEO Robert Garrett, leading physicians, key network executives, venture capitalists, and patent attorneys, who gather regularly to vet proposals from entrepreneurs. As a result, the health network’s novel incubator has vetted many products and strategies to streamline care delivery, reduce infections, lower hospital readmissions, and help patients partner in their care with physicians.
Through the Bear’s Den Innovation Hub, officially opened at the Ocean University Medical Center in New Jersey’s Brick Township, Hackensack Meridian Health encourages its 35,000 team members to bring forward their best ideas to improve care delivery and enhance patient satisfaction. Hackensack Meridian Health’s Chief Research Officer, Dr. Ihor Sawczuck, points out that one of the key focus areas for the organization is regenerative medicine, which is why they decided to invest in FluidForm.
Similarly, Garrett adds that FluidForm has an “exciting concept, with lots of therapeutic potential,” and that these are the kinds of strategic investments that have the potential to help Hackensack transform health care for its patients. Moreover, since FluidForm’s robust pipeline includes development and preclinical programs addressing significant unmet needs in human health, like bioprosthetic implantable medical devices, and a new generation of complex tissue models to test drug efficacy and cardiotoxicity, it holds tremendous potential to recreate functional human tissue for research, training, and potentially replacement.
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