Interview: Derek Morris, Organ Manufacturing Group At United Therapeutics

Derek Morris is Project Lead and a founder of the Organ Manufacturing Group at United Therapeutics. Previously, he served as Technical Assistant at Max Levchin’s venture capital firm, HVF, focusing on AI, Biology and Cryptography.

Derek will be a speaker at the upcoming Boston event on 7/26/2018. 

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?
Derek: There have been a couple of moments in my life when I experienced an idea so powerful that I just couldn’t sleep. I was lucky enough to take CAD classes in high school and one day our teacher brought in a 3D printer. Here sitting in front of me was a tool that could quickly give shape to new ideas. Humans have been using tools for millions of years to turn our imaginations into reality and here was something powered by imagination to make atoms. What a wonderful thing.
Jenny: What inspired you to start your journey/company/career/research in 3D printing (bio-fabrication/bio-printing)?
Derek: I have always been interested in helping people see more, do more, experience more. As a computer scientist, extending human capability is a driving force behind much of what we do. However, I knew that I wanted to help increase our healthspans which were outside of my field. As a voracious reader, I came across an article profiling Aubrey de Grey, known for his work on longevity, and saw that with self-study, you can make important new contributions. His path from computer science to biology was awakening for me. I immediately sought out my friends in biomedical engineering to borrow their textbooks, devoured the pages and followed the references. Soon after I set up a lab. I haven’t looked back since.
Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing (bio-printing/bio-fabrication)? This can be a mentor, a patient, a celebrity, anyone basically. You can name more than one as well.
Derek: I’ve been fortunate to have fantastic mentors who’ve lent me their time and experience. I’m very thankful to them and try to reflect on their generosity every day.
Martine Rothblatt: “CQ Love Do = Curiosity, Question Authority, Love Transcendently & Do Practically.”
Max Levchin: “The things that are technically hard, while fun, are not necessarily the most valuable things to work on at any given time.”
Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work?
Derek: Extending healthspan is a mission that inspires me and those we work with every day. We are at an inflection point in history and the small things we do today will have large impacts. This keeps me focused on solving the valuable problems that move us practically forward.
Jenny: What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions?
Derek: Focus. There are so many wonderful opportunities that we can work on but the challenge is to find the most valuable one where we can make progress. Having a team united behind a common mission, that you all believe in, helps make it clear every day what the most important thing you can do is.
Jenny: What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing/bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?
Derek: Previously in the 3D printing industry, the materials defined the printer. So if you wanted to make something with titanium, you would have to design a printer around that material.
In bio-printing, cells define the materials which define the printer. This is the opposite of how many people are approaching the problem today. I think that by freeing ourselves to build the tools that biology demands, we are starting to see a lot of breakthroughs.
Jenny: If you are granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be?  
Derek: Omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence.
Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice you heard should they ignore?
Derek: “Burn old wood, read old books, drink old wines, have old friends.” Alfonso X of Castile
The volume of bad advice and imitation is tremendous. The only way I know to get through it is to ignore what everyone else is doing and reason from first principles.
Jenny: If you could have a giant billboard to promote a message to millions and even billions of people in our community (i.e. healthcare 3D printing and bio-fabrication), what message would that be?
Derek: Our mission is to make an unlimited supply of transplantable organs, join us!
Jenny: What were/was the best/worst investment you made in 3D printing/bio-printing/bio-fabrication?
Derek: Hands down, the best investment I have made in the future success of our project has been finding the right people to work with. We look for people who are not only brilliant A-players but those who are mission-driven.
Jenny: What was/is the biggest risk you took in your career?
Derek: I left college early, reneged on a comfy Microsoft job, and lived in a closet in San Francisco while teaching myself tissue engineering and building bioprinters in the kitchen. It was a fantastic, enthralling time.
“Set aside a number of days where you will have the most meager of food and clothing. Then ask yourself: Is this what I feared?” – Seneca
Jenny: What do you enjoy in your spare time? What are you passionate about outside of your work/3d printing?
Derek: I love hiking New Hampshire’s White Mountains and an arduous journey for a passionate cause.
Jenny: What is your favorite quote? Why?
Derek: I’ve had a couple quotes so far in this interview but my favorite is the one below that I use on my email signature. To me, it’s a reminder of our ability to transcend our barriers.
“Your mind is software. Program it.
Your body is a shell. Change it.
Death is a disease. Cure it.” – Eclipse Phase
Jenny: What does the word “3DHEALS” mean to you?  =)

Derek: Transcendence. 

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