Sydney medtech Inventia Life Science has taken home the top prize in Australia’s Good Design Awards 2019, for its 3D bioprinter technology creating realistic replicas of tumours for testing cancer treatments.
The Inventia team worked with design house Design + Industry on the technology, with the pair winning both the prestigious Good Design Award of the Year and the Best in Class award for the medical and scientific product category.
Founded in 2013, Inventia set out to create a bioprinter specifically for medical research.
The startup is backed by Blackbird, Prisma, Main Sequence Ventures and Airtree, as well as Skip Capital, the VC firm run by Kim Jackson and her husband, Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar.
Chief executive Dr Julio Ribeiro started working on the technology back in 2011, he tells StartupSmart, and soon met co-founders Dr Cameron Ferris and Dr Aidan O’Mahony.
“It was something no-one else was doing at the time,” O’Mahony tells StartupSmart.
“Bioprinting was very focused on tissue engineering and not very focused on medical research.”
Growing cells in 3D is a fairly new concept, Ribeiro explains.
“Normally people grow cells in a petri dish, as a single layer of cells … but this does not represent the reality of biology. We don’t have any cells in our body growing as a single layer.”
Previously, creating 3D cell structures has been a manual and time-consuming task. And the end result would still not be representative of a tumour, which is made up of many different types of cells, Ribeiro says.
“Those cells help the tumour survive the treatment,” he adds.
“It’s very important to have all the cells when you’re trying to mimic what happens in a tumour.”
This technology is designed to create a more complex and realistic 3D model of cells representing a tumour, “with very high throughput and repeatability”, O’Mahony explains.
“We’re giving biologists a very powerful tool.”
Not only can the technology provide samples more quickly, but it’s also able to print samples based on a patient’s actual tumour, meaning researchers can test what kind of drugs the patient is most likely to be receptive to, minimising the risk of ineffective treatments.
“You have a much more personalised, targeted medicine that can treat that patient’s cancer specifically,” Ribeiro says.
“Cancer treatment in itself is very debilitating.”
Equally, the co-founders hope the research could also eliminate the need for animal models for testing treatments.
While this would be good from an ethics perspective, it also means faster and more accurate drug testing processes.
“Lots of drugs are tested on animals, but fail when they’re used on humans,” Ribeiro says.
“They have different biology.”
Good design by design
Winning a national design award may not be an obvious goal for a medtech startup. However, Ribeiro says it was always important to him to integrate good design into the Rastrum product.
Design + Industry was involved from very early stages, he adds.
“This award obviously represents the recognition of the work that was done in having a design house involved with the project from day zero,” Ribeiro says.
Although the Inventia tech team created the internal components and system architecture, they then built several prototypes and took them to Design + Industry.
“They helped us to get the ergonomics and the look and feel of the machine right,” O’Mahony explains.
Typically, research labs are grey, boring and uninteresting, he says.
“We wanted to build something quite bold … something that would stand out in a lab,” he adds.
“They came back with hot pink and chrome.”
However, there was also a focus on the ergonomics of the design, with an aim to make it as easy to use as possible.
Most lab equipment is built “by engineers for engineers”, Ribeiro explains.
“We designed an instrument by engineers for biologists.”
Now, the Inventia team is working on developing a range of kits for use with Rastrum. The printer itself is just a platform, Ribeiro says.
He likens it to an iPhone, saying there will eventually be “hundreds of apps” that can be used with it.
“Every year we will be announcing many new applications and many new developments,” he says.
“This is just the beginning.”
For other medtech startups creating something completely new and innovative in the research market, O’Mahony advises maintaining a strong vision of what it is you’re building.
“There are a lot of bioprinters out there that are very aimed towards tissue engineering. We took a very strong focus on building something for biologists, and we were very clear about that from the beginning,” he says.
“I think that really was something our investors appreciated and believed that we could deliver a product into that market.”
For Ribeiro, the most important thing is “solid science”.
The team selected “the best scientists and engineers in the country” to work on the Rastrum product, to make sure the technology has a strong foundation in science that really worked.
“You have to have a very strong adherence to strong science, and do the work before you start to go to the public,” Ribeiro says.
“You create a lot of expectations if you’re speaking before you have a product.”