Dr. Stephen Ryan: PolyUnity Tech

Dr. Stephen Ryan is a practicing physician and co-founder of PolyUnity Tech. He has explored Additive Manufacturing applications in healthcare for over 6 years as a researcher and entrepreneur. He has been involved in the creation of many 3D Printed products including medical simulations, patient-specific medical devices, PPE, and end-use hospital equipment. His current role is to build relationships with hospital stakeholders to better understand regulatory considerations and advocate for the adoption of additive manufacturing services within the healthcare ecosystem. Dr. Stephen Ryan will be sharing his experiences at our virtual event 3D Printing in Hospitals.

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing?

Stephen: I was in a friend’s basement while in my undergrad (2009) and he showed me a video of a 3D Printer making a small object (like a pokemon model). I remember my mind instantly expanding and thinking about what else it could make and where this technology could go in the future. The object was irrelevant, it was the fact that you could make anything out of thin air that captured my attention.

Jenny: What inspired you to start your company?

Stephen: I grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador, a province in Canada with vast geography and distributed rural populations. Providing goods and services to these communities is logistically challenging and expensive. While in medical school I saw that NASA 3D Printed a wrench on the International Space Station. They had a problem, requested a solution from the earth, and sent the file to the ISS for printing. I thought, if NASA can do that, we should be able to do the same across the earth to get medical equipment to hard-to-reach places (such as rural Newfoundland). I began a research project with my 2 company co-founders to assess the feasibility of this theory. We founded MUNMed3D and the Med3DNetwork which placed printers in rural communities, where we taught about 3D printing and the types of things that could be designed and manufactured on-site. Ultimately, we spun this idea out of the university to create the commercial entity PolyUnity. Our mission remains the same as we hope to “empower passionate healthcare professionals to reimagine better outcomes” through the use of additive manufacturing.

Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing?

Stephen: Dr. Gary Paterno was a cancer researcher at the Memorial University Medical School. When I had the crazy science fiction dream of teleporting medical equipment, he agreed to be my academic supervisor. I remember that he was just thrilled at the passion for the project. Although he had no previous experience with 3D Printing technology, he wanted to help me along my journey. From navigating university politics to funding applications, he was integral to my early success in this field and paved the way for the creation of PolyUnity Tech.

Additionally, my two co-founders Dr. Michael Bartellas and Dr. Travis Pickett. They recognized the potential that 3D Printing would have in medicine when it was in its infancy and have been tireless and equally as passionate about driving our mission forward. This industry is a challenging landscape to succeed in due to the evolving hardware, software, regulatory considerations, and competition but they have been up for the task and by my side for the last 8 years.

Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work? 

Stephen: Over the last few years we have seen how fragile the global supply chain is. From the pandemic to the Suez canal crisis, there have been significant disruptions that have affected the movement of products around the world. Furthermore, the carbon footprint associated with procurement and supply chains is significant and can be dramatically improved upon. I believe that society will benefit from digital inventory, on-demand local manufacturing, and improved supply chain resilience, especially when it comes to medical equipment. I am motivated to make this happen and use my experience with 3D Printing along the way.

Jenny: What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions? 

Stephen: The first major obstacle was convincing the government and healthcare organizations of the power of 3D Printing. In our local healthcare ecosystem, it took years of systematic education, creating proof of concept projects, and demonstrating measurable value. Over time, through strategic planning and publicity, we have gathered a lot of support and funding for our initiative. 

Our next big hurdle is scaling our solution and getting buy-in from healthcare organizations across the globe. Everywhere has varying regulations and procurement pathways, so we need to navigate them with caution to ensure our products are of high quality and meet the needs of our clients/partners. We have developed a product approval pathway that is part of our company’s secret sauce. 

Jenny: What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Stephen: I foresee a lot of the same obstacles that I have faced with basic plastic parts and creating end-user equipment for in-hospital use. There will need to be strict guidelines and regulations around research ethics, manufacturing, transportation, and use in patients. As with any innovation of values, these roadblocks and challenges are inevitable, as long as we are aware of that I’m sure the industry will navigate this and drive forward in an amazing direction.

Jenny: If you are granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be? 

Stephen: 1 – Provide me with a state of the art manufacturing facility filled with any printers of my choosing

2 – Be given a magic wand that I could wave and instantly everyone understands that 3D Printing is here to stay, has incredible functionality, and is not a science fiction dream anymore. This would make my job of educating stakeholders a lot easier. haha.

3 – Be able to regularly meet with medical 3D Printing enthusiasts to network and discuss how to successfully forge ahead. Wait… I now have this…. Thanks, 3DHeals!

Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advices you heard should they ignore? 

Stephen: I truly believe that if you have a “wild idea” or are thinking outside of the box… explore it. If it is a passion, something that you research independently and love learning more about, then it is something you will likely have success with. 

Thinking outside of the box is great, but be aware of the box. Understand the industry you are hoping to tap into  (or create) and do due diligence in market analysis, competitor landscape assessment, and sound business planning. This will ensure that you do not waste time or money on a lost cause. 

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3DHEALS From Academia (Collective) – This section features recent, relevant, close-to-commercialization academic publications in the space of healthcare 3D printing, 3D bioprinting, and related emerging technologies.