Innovating organ-on-chip to accelerate research

BIOFABICS brings custom design tools to biofabrication.

While still in its infancy, organ-on-chip (OOC) technology is quickly becoming a key growth segment in the Longevity sector, and is predicted to become a $100 million market by 2025 [1]. Key to the success of OOCs are the biotissues and technologies needed to develop them.

One company addressing this challenge is Portuguese start-up BIOFABICS, which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. The company’s founder and CEO, Dr Pedro Costa, spoke at the recent 3D Bioprinting Research Symposium in London, where he talked about biofabrication and the strategies needed to help streamline the path to commercialisation. We recently caught up with Dr Costa to dig deeper into OOC:

Longevity.Technology: There are a number of OOC solutions in the market – what makes BIOFABICS different?

Dr Costa: A huge gap [exists] between the biology and the technology, namely in the field of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. At BIOFABICS we intend to bridge that gap by making it very easy for researchers to design and request their own highly customised devices through a very straightforward online interface. After that, we take care of all the technology and deliver the device to the researcher’s lab. In this way, the researcher is able to focus all their energy solely on the research question and not on the development of new devices and equipment.

In this sense, we have just launched the BIOFABICS TOOLBOX which acts as an online database of design tools. We usually create these design tools with specific purposes and applications in mind. However, as often happens in science, these tools may eventually become useful for many other purposes and applications that we may not have even thought about yet. We are very curious to see what the users of our platform will come up with by browsing and playing with the various tools.

Of course, in case some of our users are not able to design their very specific devices using our online platform, we can always create new specific design customisation tools or simply provide the desired devices on a conventional consulting and/or manufacturing service basis.

BIOFABICS - Pedro Costa
BIOFABICS’ Pedro Costa

Longevity.Technology: A common concern with organs-on-chips lies in the isolation of organs during testing – are you engaged on arrays of OOC to emulate the wider response of the human body?

Dr Costa: Indeed, we are aware of that concern and we are currently developing new devices and design customisation tools which allow to do exactly that.

Given that the customisation process in our platform is fully automated, you can imagine a user easily putting together large arrays of various interconnected organ models just with the click of a button. And, of course, at the same time being able to customise each and every single element in that array.

Also, an important aspect in our strategy is that we are very open to external innovation. Not only are we always happy to collaborate with external researchers and companies but also try to make it very easy for our users to easily integrate those external innovations into the devices generated in our platform. If a certain external technology works very well and the users like it, why would we block it and try to reinvent the wheel? Instead, we embrace it and facilitate its integration.

Overall, we want to be known as the company where everyone can easily find (or rather create) solutions for their technological needs. This will be increasingly facilitated as the number of design tools available in our database grows and as we further facilitate the integration of multiple innovative technologies.

Longevity.Technology: What types of projects are you currently involved in?  

Dr Costa: Currently, we are mainly focused on pre-clinical research. We are taking one step at a time and starting from a stage that we know very well. Pre-clinical studies are extremely important since they often determine if a subsequent clinical study is worth taking place or not. It is also becoming increasingly clear that conventional in vitro and in vivo methods may not be as reliable as previously believed. Therefore, there is currently a great need for new and more reliable technologies and techniques to be employed in pre-clinical studies. Organ-on-chip technologies may be able to meet that need since they allow to generate three-dimensionally complex and miniaturised in vitro structures, which are further grown into highly dynamic environments, therefore more closely resembling the ones found in the human body and enabling more accurate tests to be performed.

Longevity technology clinical pipeline
Clinical pipeline. Source: Science Direct

At the moment, we are very much focused on democratising the access to organ-on-chip and biofabrication technologies by empowering researchers with our know-how, our advanced manufacturing capabilities and our user-friendly software tools.

Of course, in the future we also intend to become involved in clinical testing. We are particularly interested in providing our technologies in applications related to personalised medicine and diagnostic. In an ideal future, we envision to enable the creation of something like a “biological avatar” for each and every patient, where it may be possible to predict and diagnose the existence of a disease (or potential risk thereof) as well as test and optimise a personalised treatment for that same disease in that same specific patient.

Longevity.Technology: You’re H2020 funded combined with other grants – will you be moving towards equity investment in the future?  

Dr Costa: Indeed, we are very proud to be funded by the European Commission.  Apart from being a great honour for us, this funding also shows that what we are doing is seen as something of high value and of high potential for the future of Europe. This funding is allowing us to further develop our technology and to have it tested and validated by top experts, in the context of various research projects. In this way, we are exploring the application of our technologies in many ways and in multiple fields, aided by those who will later become the leading users of those same technologies in their respective fields.

Regarding equity investment, so far, we fortunately haven’t felt the need for it. This may in fact be quite advantageous since we are able to mature our products and services, our strategy and company structure at our own pace.  At the same time, we are also able to make very quick strategic decisions at any given time without needing to ask permission to anyone. I believe that sometimes a very early equity investment may in fact become counterproductive. When external investment takes place very early on in the life of an R&D-based company, there is a risk of limiting the full potential of that same company. Most investors tend to expect (and rightfully so) to generate as much revenue, as quickly as possible. That’s why many experts often advise start-ups to only accept “smart money”, which means, only accepting funding from investors who are highly knowledgeable and influential in the field and who indeed understand that R&D-based businesses need enough time, space and funding to fully grow into a full-blown money-making machine.

At some point, we will most likely need large investment rounds, mainly to be able to quickly expand our business and to explore some very cash-intensive applications, such as diagnostics and personalised medicine. In those cases, funding is key.

[1] https://www.fiormarkets.com/report/global-organ-on-chip-market-by-type-liver-heart-lung-386019.html

The BIOFABICS TOOLBOX was developed in the scope of project 3DPRINT-VASCU-CHIP. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 798014.
Image credits: BIOFABICS
Danny Sullivan
Contributing Editor Danny has worked in technology communications for more than 15 years, spanning Europe and North America. From bionics and lasers to software and pharmaceuticals – and everything in between – he’s covered it all. Danny has wide experience of technology publishing and technical writing and has specific interest in the transfer from idea to market.

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