Interview: Jon Rowley, Founder & Chief Product Officer, RoosterBio

Jon Rowley, Roosterbio

Jon A. Rowley, Ph.D., is the Founder & Chief Product Officer of RoosterBio Inc.  Jon started RoosterBio in 2013 as part of his personal quest of having the biggest impact possible on the commercial translation of technologies that incorporate living cells, including cellular therapies, engineered tissues, and tomorrow’s medical devices.  Jon holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in Biomedical Engineering and has authored over 35 peer-reviewed manuscripts and 20 issued or pending patents related to biomaterials development, tissue engineering, and cellular therapy.  Jon started his industry career at BD as a scientist and R&D manager in a Cell & Tissue Technologies group focused on applying high throughput screening technologies to cell therapy media development and tissue engineering.  Jon then contributed to the clinical development of Aastrom Biosciences’ Tissue Repair Cell product, where he was Sr Manager of Process Development responsible for manufacturing process improvements and cell delivery to the patient.  Jon most recently spent 5 years as Director of Innovation and Process Development in Lonza’s Cell Therapy CMO business, and currently resides in Walkersville, MD with his wonderful wife and their three children. Jon will be a speaker at our upcoming 3DHEALS2020.

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

Rowley: My first encounter was during college at the University of Michigan where my undergraduate degree was in Materials Engineering in the early 1990s.  I was getting exposed to all sorts of material processing technologies from metal forging to ceramic casting to fiber spinning and polymer injection molding. We even had access to an early SLA machine for rapid prototyping of computer-generated designs. During my undergraduate research work where I was developing applications for engineered protein polymers, the 3D fabrication technology that I utilized mostly was our departmental Scientific Glassblower, Harold.  I would pop up to his workshop with custom cell culture tool concepts that I needed to be created, but I had the added complexity of needing the ability to steam sterilize the pieces (a process that melts most plastics). I was utilizing many types of materials processing in my work, and quickly realized the practical applications in the engineering world.

Jenny: What inspired you to start your journey in 3D bio-fabrication?

Rowley: I started my journey in the 3D bio-fabrication of living tissues during my University days.  I was getting my BS in Materials Science & Engineering at Michigan when I fell in love with cell biology.  I ended up taking most of the classes within the Biology department even though it didn’t contribute to my degree – I just thought biology was an amazing field that I discovered a little too late to switch majors out of the Engineering school.  When I finally got to taking higher level Developmental Biology and Genetics classes, after taking all of these material processing classes in my engineering major, I started to look at living organisms simply as big material factories – making growth factors, cytokines, extracellular matrix or new cells when needed, on demand.  It was truly fascinating. This was around 1993-1994. As I was looking for what to study in Graduate School, this new field of Tissue Engineering was just starting to materialize, and Michigan hired its first faculty focused on this field named David Mooney out of MIT & Harvard. I really hit it off with Dave and ended up staying at Michigan and doing my PhD in his lab where we focused on how material properties can be engineered for tissue engineering applications.  We collaborated a ton during those initial years on projects associated with designing biomaterials to guide cell function and tissue structure. I got to bring much of my materials processing background to the table and many of our inventions were immediately made into formats that could be tested in practical applications. We filed several patents during that time – one (in collaboration with Larry Bonassar – now at Cornell) titled Injection Molding of Living Tissues.  It was a really fun and exciting time to be in Tissue Engineering, as everything was so new. I have kept my love of the tissue engineering and biofabrication fields alive when I started my current company, RoosterBio.

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

Rowley: I would say that my PhD advisor was the major inspiration when it came to solidifying my commitment to the biofabrication and tissue engineering field.  Dave Mooney was an inspiration on the technology, first and formost. But Dave also drove home many of the values that he picked up during his time working with his PhD co-advisors Bob Langer (an engineer) and Jay Vacanti (an MD).  The key messages being that the field of tissue engineering and biofabrication are quite multidisciplinary, requiring experts in chemical engineering, materials science, cell biology, medicine and surgery. Achieving success in this field does require diverse teams that work together and are able to put egos aside to achieve what hasn’t been accomplished before. As the field of tissue engineering moves from a research-focused field towards a clinically- and commercially-focused field, then experts in software, production hardware (the 3D printers), cell production (the most critical raw material of engineered tissues and organs), biomaterial scaffolds/bioinks, and tissue biopreservation are all required to make the product, and experts in medicine, clinical trial design, quality and regulatory to get the product through the regulatory authorities. Working with diverse teams of people throughout industry is what keeps things exciting and interesting for me.

Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work?

Rowley: I have 3 things that tremendously motivate me:

Being in a position to truly impact the direction of a field is extremely motivating. The team at RoosterBio have established a new business model within the field that is removing multiple barriers to the commercial translation of 3D bio-fabricated products.  As Alan Kay once said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”, and we are doing just that.

My wife and kids are a massive motivating factor for me – they are my biggest cheerleaders and the ones that keep me grounded in life – and help me make the most out of every day.

Lastly, the tremendous team of irrationally dedicated individuals at RoosterBio that work tirelessly to get our game changing products to market so that biofabrication technologies will impact human health at a faster pace – while having fun and supporting each other through our ups and downs. Seeing all of our hard work pay off is extremely motivating to me.

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

Rowley: As the only truly limited resource, using time to the fullest is something I’m always looking to do. Prioritization of opportunities is key – getting unfocused can be devastating for small businesses. The best, and really the only way, to conquer the obstacles that we face at RoosterBio is to focus our amazing team on specific challenges and let them work through the various problems together. Being such a multi-disciplinary company with challenging issues, it requires several experts to weigh in on before a solution emerges.

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)?

Rowley: 3d printing of human tissues requires vast numbers of cells, at least hundreds of millions per tissue, and often billions to tens of billions to manufacture even small numbers of consistent tissue lots.  Obtaining these cell numbers is both technically and economically challenging. RoosterBio was founded to break down the technical and cost barrier of generating billions of cells, truly democratizing this piece of the biofabrication puzzle.  We have radically simplified the production to the point that anyone can now generate vast quantities of high quality cells – getting more projects into development, into the clinic, and eventually onto the market.

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

Rowley: Perfect is the enemy of great – live by the 80:20 rule and get imperfect products out into the world for rapid feedback – and then build on the successes and know when to cut your losses and move on.

Advice to ignore:  Many people don’t believe that innovation can be managed, or should be managed. They are wrong. There is a process to innovation that can be learned and implemented….. without proper oversight, almost everything will go off course. Learn how to manage, and everything will be OK.  Not everything will work or be successful, but you greatly increase your chances of success with basic management 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?

Rowley: “The best way to predict the future is the invent it.” Alan Kay.  What this means to me is to go out and make things that fit into your world view – prove it can be done and more people will do it.

Jenny: What were/was the best investment you made in 3D printing/bio-printing/bio-fabrication?

Rowley: Easy: Starting RoosterBio. The dividends from the learning I have had and the friendships I have started while building the RoosterBio business are immeasurable.

Jenny: What were/was the worst investment you made in 3D printing/bio-printing/bio-fabrication?

Rowley: I bought a first version 3D printing pen at MakerFair way before they worked well…… it lasted a weekend.

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

Rowley: Leaving a stable, established, good-paying job and cashing in my kids college fund to start my own company was by far the biggest risk I have taken… and I would do it all over again even if RoosterBio had failed.  Life is a journey, not a destination.

Jenny: What do you enjoy in your spare time? What are you passionate about outside of your work/3d printing?

Rowley: I focus most of my time outside of RoosterBio with my wife and three grade school children – bringing up future scientist-engineers and teaching them to relish in nerdiness and “to be awesome always”.

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

Rowley: Biofabrication of medical products is central to the success of Regenerative Medicine. Let’s stop treating disease, and start curing them!