PoojaVenkatesh is Co-CEO and Co-Founder at Next Big Innovation Labs, a startup of enthusiastic individuals on a mission to confront the world’s most challenging problems in the healthcare space. 

Pooja, could you let us know about your background and what brought you to 3D printing in the first place? 

Having done my Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology and Master’s in Management from Cass
Business School in London, my tryst with 3D printing began when we started Next Big Innovation Labs. The company started with a vision of impacting the next billion, through the disruptive technology of 3D printing in healthcare. Thus began our journey, with the founding team coming from an interdisciplinary background of engineering and biotechnology, we sought out to understand the need of the hour in the scientific community, particularly in the field of 3D printing. Our interactions with doctors helped us understand that 3D models of various aspects of human anatomy were highly sought after. These 3D models help the doctor conduct a surgery on the model which not only saves time but also helps in planning and building their confidence before performing critical surgeries. These 3D models are created by converting a CT or MRI scan to a 3D printing file by the Next Big Innovation Labs team using our own custom algorithms. We have provided 3D models of skulls which have been used to train medical students in Ethiopia as part of ‘Training for Trauma’ program.

Upon further interactions with doctors and researchers, we realized that there is a growing need for customizable implants which would be made from biomaterials that could mimic the human scenario. This led us to explore the niche area of bioprinting, where 3D printing technology can be modified to handle biological materials and print them with micron-level precision. With the combined expertise of engineering and biotechnology in-house, we built our own bioprinter under the Make in India Initiative. Using our in-house built bioprinter we are developing our first line of product which is 3D Bioprinted Skin (Innoskin®). Innoskin® aims to be a viable alternative to animal testing in cosmetic, clinical and pharmaceutical R&D. While interacting with researchers from India who are working on 3D bioprinting, we realized that there were some key problems they faced, foremost being the high cost incurred while purchasing a bioprinter from outside India, secondly the lack of optimal servicing from these companies. We were able to address these challenges by developing ‘TRIVIMA’ India’s first customizable bioprinter, for researchers working in the space of 3D bioprinting, keeping in mind their research needs.

What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?

Our first experience was 3D printing a skull for a maxillofacial surgeon, where one side of the patient’s cheekbone was completely missing. Using the patient’s CT scan we were able to mirror the right side on to the left using Autodesk Meshmixer software and create a complete 3D model of the face. This helped the doctor in preparing a custom medical grade titanium mesh on the model before going to surgery, which reduced the time of surgery by more than half. This case reinforced our idea of providing 3D printed models to doctors so they can handle complex cases with more confidence. Our 3D printed skull models, where we have simulated fractures on the models have been used as a presurgical guide for ‘Training for Trauma’ program which was conducted for doctors in Ethiopia.

Could you explain furthermore what Next Big Innovation Labs is and the services that you are providing?

Next Big Innovation Labs is a deep tech life sciences platform focussed on developing 3D Bioprinted Products and Services for R&D, Industrial and Clinical Applications. The company was founded in May 2016 at Bengaluru, Karnataka. NBIL consists of a team of individuals from varied fields of expertise, ranging from Biotechnology and Engineering to Business and Strategy. The team at NBIL has developed India’s first customizable 3D Bioprinter (Trivima) which has the capability to print both soft and hard tissues. We are currently developing our first line of product, which is 3D bioprinted skin – InnoSkin® using our patented technology and trade secret
biomaterials. We are working on two variants of the product, the first being InnoSkin® HE (Human Epidermis) and InnoSkin® FT (Full thickness) which will comprise both the dermal and epidermal components.

Through our products, we aim to eliminate the need for animal testing
and provide researchers, across a gamut of industries, access to precise and cost-effective alternatives for testing. In our journey so far, the company has been backed by grants from both state and central governments, Tata Trusts and Lockheed Martin. Next Big Innovation Labs has been featured at Autodesk’s flagship event at Bangalore, India. We were adjudged the best startup at Bioasia conference 2018, held at Hyderabad, which was a symposium for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies. We have recently opened our offices at Frankfurt and Berlin to start focussing on key international collaborations and clients which will help strengthen platform for our product Innoskin®. NBIL, as a company, yearns to provide a 3D Bioprinting platform that can be used by researchers globally to develop products and push the boundaries of the domain.

What are the main challenges if converting a CT or MRI scan to a 3D printing file?

We have observed that with trauma cases specific to maxillofacial origin, there is severe misalignment and fractures on the bone. This has proved to be challenging when we are converting the CT file to a 3D printable format, since we need to use a combination of conversion algorithms and software to create a printable file. In the case of areas where the bone thickness is thinner than usual, especially below the eyes, we have to optimize the details during conversion. In such cases, we also have to provide the right infill so that the 3D model does not break after printing and accurately mimics the bone density at the site. The most common challenge we see is low-resolution CT files we have to convert, due to non-availability of high-end CT scan resolution machines in most remote regions. Our algorithms and technical know-how does the trick and makes sure the file conversion is efficiently done and printing is done in cost-effective biodegradable bone density mimicking material.

Can you tell us more about your 3D Bioprinted Skin (Innoskin®) product?

InnoSkin® is 3D bioprinted skin tissue and the first of its kind in India. It has been developed using our patented bioprinting technology and processes. InnoSkin® aims at being a cutting-edge alternative to current in-vitro models of testing used for cosmetic, ingredient and pharmaceutical
R&D. InnoSkin® HE can be used for a plethora of tests like skin irritation and corrosion, diffusion studies to name a few, that are currently been conducted on cadaver skin, pigskin, and animal models. InnoSkin® FT comprises of the dermal and the epidermal component of skin (without melanocytes) and can be used for cosmetic ingredient testing and for drug efficacy and toxicity tests for topical applications. InnoSkin® provides a cost-effective, accurate and time-saving solution to current models that are used for testing. InnoSkin® HE and InnoSkin® FT will outplay the current models used, in terms of repeatability and batch-wise consistency.

Have you run into any challenges from being a woman in 3D Printing?

There haven’t been any challenges so far. I feel the network system is great in India, the government has extended their support to women entrepreneurs by setting up Women Entrepreneurship Platform (WEP). This platform allows us to engage with women entrepreneurs working in diverse fields, which not only provides an opportunity to learn from their individual journey of being a woman entrepreneur but also allows for the exchange of ideas which could lead to game-changing startups. There are also a number of forums in 3D printing, where you get to learn from experts and novices in this field.

Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?

We will be launching our first line of biotech products InnoSkin® HE by the end of 2019.

What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?

The average time it takes to build a single family house is around 7 months. There are companies that are 3D printing houses in less than 24 hours using materials like plastic waste. More than 300 metric tonnes of plastic are produced globally every year. 3D printed houses can reduce this volume that ends up in the landfill. Many companies around the world are already collecting and using household waste products made of plastic to fuel 3D printers, like a social enterprise in India who convert it into the ‘ink’ needed for 3D printing. An architectural firm in Amsterdam has also built houses using bioplastics. This proves that 3D printing technology can not only be
used to build homes for a lot cheaper and faster, but also provide a sustainable alternative to plastic recycling which is currently plaguing the world.

What do you consider game-changing technologies in Additive Manufacturing?

In my opinion, 3D bioprinting is definitely a game-changing technology for the healthcare sector.
Research in the field of regenerative medicine has tremendously progressed since the introduction of 3D bioprinting, which allows for printing of 3D structures that mimic the human scenario with micron-level precision. The cost of novel medicines is skyrocketing only because of the time and money spent on developing these drugs, and the current models used for preclinical testing are animal models that do not mimic the human scenario. 3D bioprinting technology can be used to develop organ-on-a-chip (OOC) which integrates all the organs in a human body on a chip. OOC is a potential game-changer for pharma companies, using which they can analyze the effects of drugs in a human scenario, before going into clinical trials. This not only drastically reduces the cost and time for developing novel drugs but also paves the way for personalized medicine which will improve the lifestyle of patients suffering from critical and rare diseases. In the near future, 3D bioprinting can be used to develop organs in the lab, that can one day eliminate the need for organ donors.

What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you? What do you think of the 3D printing industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve?

My first memory of 3D printing was in the movie Jurassic park 2, where they 3D print the vocal cord chamber of a velociraptor. To see how 3D printing was used in the movie by a paleontologist, to visualize an organ of an extinct animal, was extremely intriguing to me as a child. How 3D printing has evolved over time, from when it was initially used as a tool to build parts with precision, faster turnaround time and with lighter materials for the automotive and aerospace sectors, to currently empowering a sector on the other side of the spectrum such as regenerative medicine, by 3D bioprinting organs in the lab, reiterates the vast potential of this technology . 3D printing has also evolved as an integrative tool which has been used in diverse sectors such as architecture, customizable implants, cosmetic and Pharma R&D, food, aerospace, automobiles to name a few. I personally feel that as of today, we have barely scratched the surface to uncover the potential possibilities of using 3D printing technology in various fields. I would like to see some use of 3D printing technology being used to create sustainable solutions, that can have positive effects in the environmental sector. With the growing popularity of 3D printing amongst the masses and with it gaining traction as a tool that can soon become a household commodity, who is to say what path-breaking discoveries the next generation will discover using this technology.

In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?

I feel that Women in 3D Printing is a great platform, especially for women who are working in 3D printing to connect and exchange ideas. Your platform has local ambassadors in different countries, this is definitely a step towards bringing together more women in this community. In my opinion, conducting conferences and workshops in educational institutes will inspire a lot of young women to pursue the field of 3D printing.

Favorite 3D tool (could be a software, machine, material…you name it)? TRIVIMA

Favorite moment in your day job? Bioprinting

What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years?
To be able to use our 3D bioprinting technology built in-house to create products for R&D, Industrial and Clinical applications.

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