When Kara Spiller, Ph.D., moved her tissue research from a lab in Europe to Drexel University, she searched Philadelphia for a 3-D printer to test her ideas on living cells.
"The one I had been using was gigantic. It filled the room, and cost $300,000. At Drexel, that would be my entire research program," Spiller told me.
Then she heard about a trio of recent Penn grads who were building 3-D printers the size of milk crates, fitted to nurture living cells. Their firm was nestled among dozens of small firms at NextFab, Evan Malone's 30,000-square-foot for-profit "gym for innovators," on Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia.
"Let's talk," Spiller told Danny Cabrera, a Havana-born 2014 Penn Engineering graduate and cofounder of the infant printer maker, BioBots.
BioBots' desktop cell printer was priced at $5,000. "I jumped right on the bandwagon," Spiller said. She was one of the first of 26 buyers - mostly academic researchers - who have bought BioBots to date. "We are developing strategies for regenerative medicine," drugs, and biomaterials that can stimulate the body to fix itself, she said.
Cabrera says partner Ricardo Solorzano (Penn '13), a Nicaragua native, worked on the prototype BioBot in his dorm room after he was frustrated by the high cost of equipment for the Penn lab where he worked.
The model "looked awesome," Cabrera said. "It was a Frankenstein creature. It was printing out a cartilage matrix, a cubic centimeter" of living tissue. "I thought it was badass, so I started working on some of the software."
Solorzano suggested entering it in last year's Pennvention investors' competition. They won $5,000 and plowed it back into the machine. Their Pakistan-born partner, Sohaib Hashmi (Penn '13, now working on his M.D/Ph.D.), "boiled the ocean" working scholarly contacts to find potential buyers, said Cabrera, using a Cuban idiom.
When cash next ran low, they approached DreamIt Health, the Philadelphia-based venture support program, through Penn Engineering professor Elliot Menschik. "They gave us $50,000, office space, and legal services" from Duane Morris, in exchange for 8 percent of the fledgling firm, Cabrera said. The lawyers "legitimized everything we were doing, incorporated us, and got us thinking about building a business. Instead of, you know, just hacking and selling things. Phase Two will be figuring out how to integrate this into pharma companies, so they can test everything from cosmetics to cancer drugs without using animals."
Another company founder backed by DreamIt suggested BioBots apply to the Oracle Corp.-sponsored SXSW Accelerator venture contest at SXSW, the yearly Austin tech-film-music festival.
They are one of 48 firms selected to compete. "I think we're the only Philly company," Cabrera said. They'll do a two-minute pitch, then a five-minute pitch if they last another round. "We're here," he added, "because we went through DreamIt. We are definitely going to have a great time."