Could you let us know briefly about your background and your journey into Additive Manufacturing?
Anna: I am a chemical engineer who loves problem-solving, finding innovative solutions, especially within the material-medical field. After an MSc in chemical engineering and after a doctorate in polymer technology, I chose to leave the academy to work at Akzo Nobel. However, the longing for basic research and the degradable polymers became too strong and I returned to KTH. The focus from my return to KTH has been to understand and improve how degradable materials influence the biological environment and also understand how the biological environment influences the polymers. After a few years of research, I applied and got money from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research Foundation (SSF) to work part-time at a company that manufactures degradable medical mesh. It was an incredibly important experience where I gained expertise in how polymerisation, electrospinning, and knitting among other processes are performed in an industrial manner, and how extensive the regulatory work is. This period also made me aware of several clinical problems for which there were no good solutions, the surgeons needed better materials and scaffolds and I started to believe that additive manufacturing could be one important method to use to achieve the needed scaffolds. Now I am back full time at KTH as a professor and during the last 4 years, I have been running a large project, funded by SSF, where the goal is to develop a pliable degradable 3D printed prototype that can be used for soft tissue regeneration. Using the results from that project we started Akira Science AB.
Tiziana: I am a pure chemist. I studied fundamental chemistry because I wanted to make myself well-grounded in basic science, I felt the need to understand the fundamentals that regulate our world. I started with organic chemistry, building molecules from atoms, and then, during my PhD I moved to polymer chemistry, I learned how to build “bigger” and innovative macromolecules (polymers) from small molecules. Now, I am a researcher in polymer technology and I am having fun building 3D objects from polymers, yet I am striving towards the path to a real impact of my research results.
3D printing is a paradigm of my professional path: a bottom-up approach towards a clear and concrete goal, yet allowing for specific design and complexity.
My ambition is to design new polymeric materials that can fit the need of new, advanced 3D printing technologies, and contribute to the development of more sustainable, tomorrow’s materials.
Daniela: I am also a pure chemist; after a degree in Chemistry, I did my PhD in the field of polymer chemistry, mainly polyolefins, the most diffuse commodities plastics. I was fascinated by the immense possibilities to create macromolecules having features and behavior so different from small, cheap, starting molecules. Catalysts and monomers were like a LEGO playground, where the fantasy of the chemist had no limitations. Later on, driven by environmental and political consideration, my research interest was focused on degradable polymers, also derived by renewable resources, as the possible green alternative to fossil-fuel-based polymers. In this context, I was rapt by the potential biomedical applications of some of these materials and moved some time to KTH to do research in this direction. From September 2014 to August 2017 I was a part-time guest researcher at KTH as a leader of the VINNOVA “Mobility for Growth” and Marie-Curie project “Biodegradable functionalized materials for applications in tissue engineering”. One of the aims of the project was the design of degradable polymers suitable for the preparation of scaffolds for tissue engineering applications by 3D printing. In 2017 Anna was awarded a consistent research grant by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research SSF (Engineering 3D printed and knitted degradable scaffolds – PrintKnit), in this ambit the foundations for the 3D-printing company were laid, also on the base of 2 patent application (one of these is today allowed US patent). I am back in Italy, but continuing the collaboration with Anna and Tiziana in the ambit of Akira.
What is Akira Science and what is the story behind it?
Anna: Akira Science is a 3D printing academic spin-off, registered in Sweden. Akira is a limited company, having degradable and resorbable polymers in focus for various applications.
Akira Science provides the customers with filaments and printed pliable 3D-scaffolds which can be used for soft tissue engineering, e.g. reconstruction of soft tissue after a mastectomy.
Akira was founded by 3 women: the CEO, Anna, the chairperson, Tiziana, and Daniela, who is also on the board of directors. We three comprise the board of Akira and we started the company almost two years ago. Our story is quite a long one including research, cooperation, and friendship! We share the same passion for chemistry, degradable polymers, and 3D printing.
In our collaboration there was a frustration, we could synthesize degradable polymers with different properties but there was no possibility of using them in 3D matrices for tissue regeneration. The methods used either gave too low reproducibility or the polymer degraded during the process. In the research this was not a problem, it could be solved, but in order to take the step to a useful prototype, a better method was needed.
We saw this problem and started looking for solutions, the idea we came up with was written down in a project application submitted to SSF. The overall aim was to use the printed scaffold in soft tissue regeneration and there were two challenges described in the proposal 1) printing degradable polymers 2) obtaining a structure that is soft and pliable.
The project idea was financed and together we built up a research group that could solve the challenges, including different competencies such as polymer chemistry, solid mechanics, simulations, cells-materials interactions
After 2.5 years of research, the research group was able to present a solution for printing a soft and pliable 3D matrix. After submitting a patent application, the project decided to start Akira Science AB.
The idea behind Akira Science is to combine material science with biology. We usually say that “Akira ultimately avoids the division between material science and tissue engineering, fusing instead the material with the biology throughout the services. Having the material in focus!”
To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing?
Tiziana: We have developed a degradable polymer that has the potential to be used for in vivo applications. The material is stable while processing and present an adequate degradation profile in the physiological environment. None of the materials available today for 3D printing of scaffolds for tissue engineering has both features.
Do you have any (fun or not) stories about the company or your career to share with us?
Anna: Akira Science would not have existed unless we decided that collaboration is the key to success, alone is not strong. In addition to the focus on collaboration, it has been clear that everyone who is part of the project must be driven and have deep knowledge in their field. When it comes to doctoral students, we think it is important that they want to learn and have an interest in digging out details. We believe in each individual and create opportunities for everyone to grow.
It is clear in the company that diversity is the key to a lot – woman, man, white, black, Christian, Muslim, Hindu – we all work together and have created a fantastic creative environment.
Have you run into any challenges from being women in 3D Printing?
Daniela: I did not meet specific challenges in being a woman 3D Printing. However, there are challenges in being a woman in science.
Although the number of female researchers has been rapidly increased in the last decades, the underrepresentation of women becomes worse as their academic position is higher.
Academia still remains a man’s world, especially in science, and more than ever in Italy, where female professors are few and far between. The Marie Curie grant and the period abroad at KTH offered great qualification opportunity for the acquisition of novel research techniques, including 3D printing, and cultural achievement. It also represented a springboard to develop further a female career.
What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
Tiziana: We go from “monomer” to final product to test in the same space/lab and this has a tremendous impact in terms of energy-saving, sustainability, etc. From a research and development point of view, 3D printing enables us to put quickly into action and/or real products our ideas and this is done in a small Lab.
If we look at the final and real impact on the quality of life, 3D printing is having and will have a tremendous impact on improving health quality providing in a fast, easy way patient-customized devices. Such affordable technology can also foster medical care and healthcare advancement in developing countries.
Daniela: As a recent example, I would like just to mention the strong impact of 3D printing during COVID-19 global pandemic, in facing the shortage of respiratory masks for people in intensive care. A rapid and efficient solution came from 3D printing factories, who designed a small device to adapt commercially available diving masks into respiratory masks.
3D Printing manufacturers were committed to supporting a united front to address shortages and rising demand triggered by COVID-19.
What advice do you have for women looking to get started in 3D Printing?
Tiziana: If you have passion, you will succeed; give value to your ideas. Think bold and act humble!
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with Additive Manufacturing?
Visibility is most important, of which Wi3DP is incredibly important, women must show that they exist and also connect this to all possible applications where additive manufacturing is used.
Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?
We believe in the potential of our novel copolymer. We are planning to validate it in different applications, where it can substitute polycaprolactone, but where a shorter degradation rate is an advantage. At moment we are working on in vivo study regarding our degradable polymer, and we are looking forward to seeing the results shortly.
Favorite 3D tool?
Daniela: filaments of polylactide
Anna: Direct extrusion head in which the material is stored in an inert atmosphere
Favorite moment in your day job?
Tiziana: early morning time when I drink my coffee and check what has been published.
Daniela: discussing the experimental data and planning new experiments
Anna: early morning when I eat my breakfast and plan the day
What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years?
Anna: Approved (FDA/CE) printed degradable scaffold for soft tissue regeneration
Tiziana: develop three new and advanced materials for 3D Printing
Daniela: design and synthetize novel polymers for 3D Printing
Another inspiring woman you’d like us to interview?