Danish Healthtech er medfinansieret af Uddannelses- og Forsknings-ministeriet og Den Europæiske Fond for Regionaludvikling.

3D printing in the healthcare sector: Researchers must also learn from the challenges of the corporate world

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Research in 3D printing should have a commercial focus, and researchers should be better at collaborating with companies about the real challenges. This is what two researchers working on 3D printing for the healthcare sector believe.

In the Innovation Network Danish Healthtech we bring together private companies, public institutions, clinicians and researchers in 3D printing in the healthcare sector. Where the previous article was about 3D printing from a supplier perspective, this article sheds light on 3D printing from a researcher perspective. We have talked to Dang Le, assistant professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University, and Morten Østergaard Andersen, associate professor at the Department of Chemistry, Biological and Environmental Technology at the University of Southern Denmark. Both have worked across sectors in a variety of 3D print projects, emphasizing that commercial research projects may be as relevant as academic research projects.

In 2014, Dang Le received the Innovation Award from the Danish Council for Strategic Research, the predecessor of the Innovation Fund Denmark, for research of a particularly innovative nature. In Dang Les’s own words, this means that the knowledge he has generated is not only new but also commercially relevant. With a Bachelor of Medicine, a Master in Biomedical Technology and a Ph.D. in nano-science, Dang Le has an interdisciplinary background with a strong connection to pure medicine. The large pool of knowledge has provided a breeding ground for new ideas. Close cooperation with the Office for Technology Transfer at the University of Aarhus has supported the fact that Dang Le not only generates new knowledge, but also marketable knowledge that can be used in a commercial context. Currently, one of his inventions in 3D printing has been licensed to the Danish Biotech company, Hyamedix.

My education embraces several directions and it has naturally shaped me and the way I work. This has meant that I have included the corporate world as a decisive factor when formulating a project. As a researcher in engineering, one should always ask the question: How do I generate knowledge that solves real needs in society which at the same time is attractive to businesses?, says Dang Le.

Where Dang Le in recent years has focused on collaborating with well-established companies, Morten Østergaard Andersen from the University of Southern Denmark has been instrumental in starting businesses. He was present when the company Particle3D was established. A company that started as a bachelor project with Morten Østergaard Andersen as supervisor. In the project the students were put in contact with a jaw surgeon at Odense University Hospital, who called for a material that could be 3D printed. The material should be easy to shape, and the body should be able to accept it. It was the beginning of an exciting adventure about artificial 3D printed bones.

Academic Research vs. commercial research
The starting point for the company Particle3D was an attempt to meet the jaw surgeon Torben Thygesen’s challenge. Similarly, there was a focus on real problems from the start when Dang Le and his team back in 2015 received a Maersk grant and established a clinically oriented 3D printing lab focusing on material development.

Focusing on real needs supports ending with a solution that has both news value and is inventive and useful. There are some who try to make patents as a by-product based on their research, but it rarely works the same way. An inventive researcher differs from a “regular” researcher by considering existing research, existing patents, and unmet needs right from the start of a project, says Dang Le.

It is a premise for further collaboration that the product is innovative and inventive and thus patentable, so that the company dares to take greater chances during the development and approval work. This is especially true in Healthtech.

Identify collaborators early in the process
In order for the research to develop into commercially attractive knowledge, the project must be organized according to the available project resources, your skills and the market. It will be difficult to continue with the invention if you are not in contact with a company that can develop new products based on your research. The company can help to set criteria for the product and process parameters that can make the road to the market, and thus the patient, shorter.

The company you work with will ask: How many can you produce per hour? Such a question becomes an art issue in research alone. You have to meet the demands of the manufacturers so that the product has a shorter way out to the market, says Dang Le.

When partnering with a company, technology must be as attractive as possible if it is to enter the market. As a researcher, you can easily rummage around in the same project for 10 years, and that does not necessarily bring any real social or academic value in the end.

A successful project requires potential partners, a good business case, a good invention – which is strong and can be patented. Of course, there are also a number of external factors that influence a research project. Maybe the invention is good, but the market is not ready and there is not the right cooperation. There are many preparations prior to making an invention and commercializing it, says Morten Østergaard Andersen.

Meet your partner across the middle
When collaborating and building a bridge of knowledge between sectors such as knowledge institutions and private companies, it is crucial to be aware that two cultures meet and that one does not know how it is on the other side. There are two very different spheres that clash. For example, researchers at a university do not have the same financial pressure that you experience in a private company.

It is important neither to exaggerate nor to underestimate how difficult it is to work together. If anyone uses the word “just” about the others’ tasks, the alarm bells should ring, says Dang Le.

In an interdisciplinary collaboration, where you cross professional skills, competencies often meet in the middle, but unfortunately, so does the responsibility. This often proves to be a problem, especially when misunderstandings occur.

I always try to meet my business partners halfway and preferably a step further than that. Both parties must make every effort to cross the middle. You have to get acquainted with each other’s work so that you are also able to understand the other’s doubts and ambitions. It also means stepping out of one’s professional comfort zone, says Dang Le.

Thus, in a collaborative project, a company visit is not sufficient. One should read and become familiar with much of what the other is doing and thus only collaborate on top expertise.

Know your partner’s priorities
A researcher typically has three to five projects at a time as well as a number of students they supervise. Thus, a researcher always has a large number of commitments, and if the top priority is not with the given project, it may go slower than the collaborator imagined and wishes.

It is crucial to align expectations from the start and play with open cards if the project is not a top priority. If you are honest about your priorities, it often becomes possible to plan out, says Morten Østergaard Andersen.

Just as important as being aware of each other’s priorities is recognizing the different strengths of researchers.

As with other professions, there is a difference between researchers. Some work more organized than others and are more punctual and systematic. Others are very inventive and perhaps less systematic. Before the collaboration starts, it is difficult to know what type of researcher you should work with. If you want analysis, you need a punctual and systematic researcher. If, on the other hand, you want to solve a technical problem, it is better to have an inventive researcher, says Dang Le.

Apply for a patent
In a project within Healthtech, it is crucial that the solution can be patented. Two years after the patent application, the technology should preferably be alive and cover the ongoing patent costs. Otherwise, universities are likely to file the patent application and the technology is released to the public. Then there will not be much incentive for anyone to further develop it.

It is simply too expensive to develop without a patent within Healthtech because it takes a large amount of funds in terms of both resources and capital to reach a product. If you develop a new material, it is crucial that a patent is taken, and if you have not thought along those lines, the game is up, says Morten Østergaard Andersen.

You get better and better
Today, Morten Østergaard Andersen is working on 3D-printed implants for soft tissue reconstruction. Where Particle3D covers the hard areas such as bone, this soft technology can be used if you have had subcutis or breast tissue removed.

Dang Le researches the development of 3D-printed biomaterials for 3D cell culturing with drug development in mind. 3D cultured cells in vitro behave more lifelike than flat stretched cells in a Petri dish. Drug tests on 3D cultured liver cells can therefore provide data that are closer to the realities of the human body. He has worked with direct 3D printed cells before but downgraded it in the early stages.

I don’t imagine that I have to print one kind of cell after another and publish scientific articles that do nothing further. Funding Providers usually want their money to benefit the community through the research they support. This means that researchers have a responsibility to adapt to the process that leads the research from the lab to the patient – and that greatly includes understanding of patenting and licensing, says Dang Le.

Fortunately, it gets easier and easier the more times you do it.

When I made my first invention, I thought it was my last because I had put so much work in it. Of course, this was not the case. The more times you have been through the mill, the easier it will be. You become better at identifying the problems, you have the profile to solve and getting ideas that can have societal significance and prepare an invention that can be commercialized, Dang Le concludes.

6 Advice

  • Consider where you want to go: Basic research vs. commercialized research
  • Identify collaborators early in the process
  • Meet your partner over the middle
  • Know the priorities of your partner
  • Apply for a patent
  • Remember you are getting better and better

Work with 3D printing by the Innovation Network Danish Healthtech

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