Elliot McAllister is the Founder of Skyphos, the first 3D printing fabrication system enabling a shift from the enterprise of mold-based prototyping and production for healthcare-based needs. Mr. McAllister has experience and expertise in Materials Science, Mechanical Engineering, Optics, and developing microfluidic platforms. He has an advanced degree from Virginia Tech where his research focused on micro-3D printing 4 different forms of solid matter. Based on additive manufacturing technology, Mr. McAllister launched Skyphos to eliminate the barriers to entry of new applications in medical diagnostics and focuses on micro-scale requirements of microfluidics (uF), Lab-on-a-Chip (LOAC), Point-of-Care (POC) devices, as well as the needs of the sensors community. Skyphos leverages robotics, specialized materials, and the innate flexibility of a Digital Manufacturing platform to enable start-ups to get to market sooner – and large companies to reduce costs associated with developing new ones. Elliot will be speaking at the upcoming virtual event focusing on 3D printing and Microfluidics.
When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing?
Elliot: I worked for a small start-up in Philadelphia making AWD mountain bikes. We had a new design for the front suspension steering crown, but not enough time or money to pay for the fabrication, so we had one 3D printed – it took 3-5 days to print something that today would be done in a few hours. It was cool to see the part, I didn’t get to see the process. That happened in 2005 with FDM machines. In 2010, I started working at VT on the micro aerosol AM system they had from Optomec, that system used a focused aerosol spray with particle/liquid suspension to lay a bead on a platform, and then a laser would sinter and fuse all the particles together into a solid object. It was incredibly interesting and challenging because there were not many materials or suspensions that had been developed – it was like drinking out of a firehose of info to understand all the different physics and chemistry that went into designing a resin and how it would interact with the process to make parts that had 5 um features.
What inspired you to start this journey?
Elliot: I had taken all my required coursework for my PhD, and I was interested in parallel sciences. uF (microfluidics ) uses many similar techniques, lithography, and masking, to etch Si or create molds for clear polymers – these individual molds are the layers of a device for experiments or tests. The tests can be a myriad of things, DNA analysis, single cell sorting for disease or cancer recognition, etc..
It was in that class and the discussions on the challenges presented to product development/ rapid prototyping that it clicked. uF has a huge issue with any kind of pathway to get from ideation to prototype – much less production. Everyone at that time was talking about what “the next killer app” would be for uF -but there wasn’t even a first killer app on the market – the problem isn’t the application it was the manufacturing process. Taking what I knew about light-based 3D printing I drew up a roadmap on how DLP or SLA might be able to solve the problem and wrote a paper.
Shortly after I was leading a start-up that was developing a cell separation platform based in uF – the challenge then as predicted was the fabrication of devices. That company and others like it fail because of this main issue of “chip” fabrication. That 1-2 year span is where I made the recognition and then the commitment to solve this issue.
Who inspired you the most along this journey?
Elliot: I’ve been around biotech for as long as I can remember. My father, now retired, was a professor at SUNY Downstate in microbiology/immunology. I remember going to his lab and working on gel slabs for DNA separation before I graduated high school. Around 2009, I watched a show featuring Dean Kamen – an incredible inventor and proponent of STEAM/ young technologists and entrepreneurs – interview Dr. Atala from Wake Forest. That had a huge influence on me and made me decide to go back to graduate school at 36. VT has a relationship with Wake Forest and a good BioMed program. I lived just outside of Blacksburg where the University is located.
The most influential part of the journey for me was both seeing Dr. Atala’s lab – and realizing that all the technology for bio-printing he was working on had started life as an HP inkjet printer. I wouldn’t have seen it without being a part of the Davalos Lab at VT.
I also bumped into other people fairly quickly in the science, Greg Nordin at BYU and Mark Giulligan from Dolomite. They were both really encouraging to me at uTAS where I first presented. I never had someone pay that much attention to what I was doing or the problem I was interested in solving.
What motivates you the most for your work?
Elliot: My kids, my wife, an overdeveloped sense of altruism. I want to give back, I want to solve something for humankind that will leave an indelible mark on our species’ betterment.
What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions?
Elliot: My brainpower, sleep requirements, and time I have left. Besides these, the amount of funding, and convincing people this is a worthwhile endeavor have been difficult.
What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in your industry? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?
The main problems in 3D printing for lab on a chip:
- The materials available and the types available are currently a bottleneck. We need to develop acceptable bio-materials that are resorbable within the body or selectively triggered for degradation.
- Integration of multi-materials or multi-functional materials within small sensors and uF devices – that would really make them more applicable for patients.
- Not for 3DP necessarily, but further to adopt uFluidcs, we need to make sample preparation easier.
On the Bioprinting side, I believe there are three main issues facing us:
- Differentiation of cells – and the direction of that differentiation – how to program an early type into what the cell will become is still in its infancy.
- Development of vasculature and microvasculature is still incredibly hard and we are not where we need to be to have functional organs or tissues. Without this, we will be limited to a few mm thick of any tissue.
- Sensors for incubation and tissue progression for the regenerative medicine field- when you make a cake you always check the oven and we don’t have that kind of array for directing and understanding the development of tissues yet. We can do some but a much broader deeper knowledge needs to be developed – which points back to solving some issues above for microfluidics…
If you were granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be?
- The ability to have everyone in a conversation understand the other’s perspective in any given situation.
- Solve or move the needle significantly in solving one of humankind’s big nexus problems: famine, war, and global collapse of food/water/climate.
What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice you heard should they ignore?
- Failure is the most important tool for learning
- Don’t feel bad about needing time for yourself
- Disruption is a bottom-up phenomenon
- There is an amazing amount of information on DIY sites for hacking high-tech through low-cost alternatives
What is your favorite book this year? Or alternatively, what is your all-time favorite?
This is horrible, I wanted to read more this year and I have 15+ I selected to try to at least start. Most of these are science-based fact books like The Emperor of All Maladies. I had gotten really into A Beautiful Mind about the Princeton mathematician John Nash which they had made a movie about. The one I always select for this has been relatively obscure, it’s called Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. It is an autobiographical novel about a first-time Iditarod competitor who was a trapper & musher (dog sled racer) from the Midwest and it burst a lot of stereotypes we think about the race itself. I read it just before competing in my first ultra-endurance race of the same name in 2001 – The Iditasport or Iditabike is an all-human-powered race up the famed Iditarod trail. It’s a wonderful story about the narrator’s struggles with his dog team, how to train in the summer (all the inventions he comes up with), life on the trail and how hard it is at -40 degrees, how the dogs eat, and what they eat, frostbite, hallucinations, Moose attacks… It made an impact on me racing the first time. It is really funny and thoughtful to think about his bond with the dogs and how he finally gets to be part of the team.