Interview: Jan Jensen, Trailhead Biosystems

Jan Jensen, Ph.D., CEO/CSO, Founder of Trailhead Biosystems is the Lead Inventor of Trailhead Technology and has 20 years as a molecular developmental biologist. He is the Eddie J. Brandon Endowed chair of Diabetes Research at the Cleveland Clinic. He obtained his Ph.D. from U. Copenhagen in 1998 and has been faculty at US institutions since 2001. Jan has published more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and is now engaged with multiple research projects and consortia covering neural, renal, pancreatic areas, as well as cancer and immunotherapy. The technology of Trailhead Biosystems is the high dimensional design of experiments, which rests on computerized designs and robotic executions. Jan’s vision is to see systems biology become adopted and he aspires to industrialize the manufacture of specialized human cells for regenerative medicine. 

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?

Jensen: I am exposed to 3D printing mainly because we make a lot of specialized human cells. Kidney, pancreas, neural, and many others. We developed a method of high dimensional testing to understand which combinatorial inputs mammalian cells need to be robustly differentiated. As we make these cells, we need to understand how to build tissues from them. It was inevitable that we got into 3D printing.

Jenny: What inspired you to start your journey in 3D printing?

Jensen: I was not interested in 3D printing per se, but more interested in making the best cellular ‘Ink’. Impure cell populations will not print well, the tissues will be contaminated, and the function will be poor. I always have focused on ‘cell differentiation’ as the point of my career, and therefore I became Denmark’s perhaps first molecular developmental biologist. Now, after almost 20 years in the USA as a faculty, and 5 as an entrepreneur and founder of Trailhead Biosystems, it is fascinating to see the advances in the field of regenerative medicine. I think Trailhead Biosystems has an important role to play, and I seek to build the company to broadly impact this new industry.

Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey?

Jensen: The best developmental biologists were my heroes. The mammalian embryo was, and is, my guide. And the hunger for understanding how organisms form, the force.

Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work?

Jensen: The urgent need for medical products that are not drugs. The patients that are desperate for cures. We can only treat a few conditions with drugs. Most others, we need more advanced products, and for many, such products have to be living human cells and tissues.

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

Jensen: Perhaps lack of risk-taking. A lot of poor results have been published and reported in regenerative medicine. Poor cells are often to blame. And investors also don’t like that there is an arduous, slow, and costly regulatory path for a product. This eliminates a lot of activities. Only the biggest players are able to get involved, and unfortunately – these players are drug manufacturers so their take up of regenerative medicine industry is slow. We need to convince the public, and investors, that we will dramatically change society and future medicine, and that fantastic opportunities is within our field. If we can change the pharma industry along that way, not bad.

Jenny: What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Jensen: There are technical limitations to the process, mainly on resolution and printing speed. We have to have high resolution for most tissue printing needs, and we need fantastic speed/capacity to scale this into production. Most printers today are not built with the scaling in mind.

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

Jensen: One, that we as humans look less upon ourselves as a unique species – because we do tremendous damage to the ecosystem that created us by putting ourselves first all the time. We should be more humble. Two, to see the stars and the wonders of the Universe and to understand why we are here, and the purpose of it all. But I am human too. My third wish would be for a long, rewarding, and happy life for those that I Love.

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

Jensen: Pick what really excites you, and go for it. It is your life, your responsibility. No one else’s, and their experiences are old, anyway. Enter the space between the disciplines. Master one discipline, Master another, and the jump to the space right in between. There you are alone, and you can do amazing things.

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?

Jensen: Combine our Forces! We need the engineers, the biologists, the material scientists, the chemists, the programmers, and the physicians all to work together. This is not a one-man show!

Jenny: What were/ was the best investment you made in bio-fabrication?

Jensen: Don’t have any, but we have submitted a large bid partnering with a leading 3D printing company to a government organization of the DoD that might very well turn out to be the best investment (in time, and later money) in 3D printing. The outcome may eventually be an artificial kidney. I think it is doable.

Jenny: What were/ was the worst investment you made in bio-fabrication?

Jensen: Again, don’t have any yet. Could be the above program bid…

Jenny: What was/is the biggest risk you took in your career?

Jensen: Probably not becoming and engineer as all my other class mates did. Probably not doing transcription factors but morphogens instead when all others did. Probably selecting developmental biology, when I had zero training and no mentoring. Probably not doing epigenetics when all other colleagues did. Believing that despite the risks, trusting my own instinct, even if the conventional wisdom would be not to go in the direction. Becoming entrepreneur at a late stage, when an academic career was secure. All these risks are equal to the opportunities that emerged. With no risk taken, few opportunities emerge. You have to be different, and believe that you can do what you seek to do. That is the true human superpower.

Jenny: What do you enjoy in your spare time?

Jensen: I love playing keyboards, skiing, good wine, and sports, such as soccer. I most enjoy, however, watching how my kids amaze me every day in what they do.

Jenny: What is your favorite quote? Why?

Jensen: Read “Nature Aphorisms” by Goethe. It is on the wall in my office. It is an ethos to Nature, and defines us in relation to our world around us, as it tells us how we are a part which we can’t separate.

Jenny: What does the word “3DHEALS” mean to you?  =)

Jensen: More, and more. Thank you for giving me the time to go through this reflective practice.

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