Interview with Gurkaran (Karan) Chowdhry: Collagen Fibers for Bioprinting

Gurkaran Chowdhry is a polymer physicist and a co-founder of 3D BioFibR Inc., a pioneering biotechnology company at the forefront of biomaterial innovation and manufacturing. As the Director of Business Development and Operations, he has raised $5 million in funding within three years, enabling the successful commercialization of five groundbreaking biomaterial products through direct sales and strategic partnerships. As an innovative leader, Gurkaran is determined to bring 3D BioFibR to the forefront of biomaterial fabrication and help move 3D bioprinting technologies toward clinical applications. Gurkaran will be speaking at the upcoming Bioinks and Biomaterials for 3D Printing event.

What motivates you the most for your work? 

Gurkaran: My main motivation comes from having the potential to drive tissue engineering solutions into clinical applications. Two large obstacles that have kept many tissue engineering applications out of the clinic are (1) the lack of mechanical durability in tissue constructs results in constructs contracting or losing their shape before the cells are fully mature, and (2) creating a physiologically relevant environment for cell growth that can be fabricated with high precision at scale but is also amenable to implantation. 

This is what we’ve solved at 3D BioFibR – we invented a dry-spinning technology that produces collagen fibers at scale, with a close recapitulation of the structure, mechanics, and biochemical properties of natural collagen fibers. As an early-stage company, we now need to prove to the industry how our collagen fibers can move their developing tissue engineering technologies into the clinic – and that’s what gets me to work every day. I’m excited for the day we’re integrated into regulated devices, and we’ve already signed partnerships that are heading that way!

3D BioFibR

If you were granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be? 

Gurkaran: Great question!
1. A solution to manage climate change – unfortunately, I have very little faith in our ability to manage our impact on the climate through policy based on what we’ve seen, and this terrifies me. A magical solution from a higher being seems to be the best bet, so I’ll take it.
2.  The ability to teleport – this one is simple. Huge world, with a short life. Would love to see more of it, talk to people from all parts of the world, eat more food, and explore the planet.
3. Three more wishes.

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

Gurkaran: A piece of advice that I follow every day is to align my roles and responsibilities with my strengths and interests. While being well-rounded is important, I am the most productive when I focus on responsibilities I excel at and enjoy doing – this is where I bring the most value to all aspects of my life. My advice is to focus on growing in those areas of strength because that’ll have a larger impact than trying to get better at things you don’t enjoy doing – you just won’t bring it in the same way. 

I piece of advice I got as a college student that I ignored, and am glad I did, was to “maintain a narrow but in-depth educational focus.” My undergraduate degree is a major in Physics with a minor in anthropology. Why? Because I enjoyed anthropology courses and had a curiosity for the social evolution of human society over time and had access to classes that address that. While that meant I took anthro courses over some math and programming courses that would’ve made me more efficient as a physicist, these anthro courses projected my communication skills LEAP years forward. Now in a role as the Director of Business Development where I am routinely presenting a highly technical business to a wide range of audiences, ranging from non-technical investors to tissue engineering experts, not understanding C++ really isn’t that relevant. 

3D BioFibR
Copyright: 3D BioFibR

Gurkaran, can you tell us about your background and experience in the field of bioprinting and regenerative medicine? What motivated you to venture into this industry and join 3DBioFibr?

Gurkaran: I’m actually a physicist by training. My background is in polymer physics and rheology, and during my graduate work, I was focused on applying that to a very specific technology that uses highly entangled polymer solutions to create fibers. At the time, we were able to make polymer fibers with very little collagen in them – approximately 0.5% of the final fiber was collagen. But by breaking the physical problem down and answering, “What governs this polymer solution to polymer fiber transition”, we were able to characterize the mechanism governing our process and then were able to start to create fibers that were 99.5% collagen. We built on this even further, but figuring out how to remove everything that wasn’t collagen, resulting in a final fiber that was 100% collagen, and closely matched the structure of natural collagen fibers. That was interesting – so we filed some key IP and started a company – 3D BioFibR Inc. – that is focused on unlocking this core building block for tissue engineering. 

This is how we ended up in 3D Bioprinting and regen med – we understood a key challenge in 3D bioprinting, and more broadly in regen med, is that tissue engineering constructs containing cells rarely have the mechanical durability to withstand the cellular forces over time periods required for maturation. With our technology, we can make collagen fibers at 3600 times the scale of any competing technology, and these fibers closely match the structure of natural collagen fibers and have up to three times the strength of natural collagen fibers. So, we started using these fibers to reinforce bioinks. Our product, μCollaFibR™, can be added to any hydrogel, and maintain the shape of those constructs for over 4 weeks, helping our customers create constructs that can actually mature. 

All of that to say, what motivated me to get involved in this industry was the promise of 3D Bioprinting. With all the recent advances, it’s a truly exciting space that I genuinely believe will be the future of personalized tissue engineering. Especially with our ability to precisely print full cellular constructs using 100% biological materials. However, there are still some key challenges that need to be overcome to really drive this technology into clinical applications – the mechanical durability being the main one. I am motivated to help overcome that and really drive this technology into the clinic, alongside the innovators in this space.

3D BioFibR
Copyright: 3D BioFibR

What specific roles and responsibilities do you undertake within 3DBioFibr? How do your skills and expertise contribute to the company’s success?

Gurkaran: As a co-founder of 3D BioFibR, over the last 3.5 years since incorporation, I’ve worn a variety of hats, like most start-up founders, being involved in essentially every element of the business. Fortunately, we have been able to grow our team to 11+ employees now, allowing us all to slightly narrow our portfolios. Today, as the Director of Business Development, my main responsibilities include product growth and development, market strategy, investment, non-dilutive funding, building and managing strategic partnerships and driving operational focus and goals to match the business strategy. 

I do not have a formal background in business, so I did not have specific hard skills or expertise related to the business aspects of my role when I started – I have certainly developed many of both over the last 3 years. However, I did have a wide range of technical skills I developed during my physics training that I rely on every day in my role. The most important has been my ability to learn effectively. I deliberately use the word effectively, instead of quickly, as it really isn’t rate dependent. In a nutshell, physics is a discipline focused on breaking down complex problems into solvable parts, making sound assumptions that allow one to simplify the problem, and provide solutions that tend to be universally applicable to that type of problem. This strategy of simplifying complex problems to form sound solutions with wide utility is something I use every day in a role that has me learning constantly.

3D BioFibR
Copyright: 3D BioFibR

Intellectual property (IP) is vital for protecting innovations. Could you discuss any patents or proprietary technologies that you have personally contributed to or helped develop at 3DBioFibr?

Gurkaran: I am an inventor of the core patents covering 3D BioFibR’s collagen fiber spinning technology. When I joined the project, it was still an academic project in Dr. John Frampton’s lab at Dalhousie University. John had invented a new method for creating polymer fibers containing collagen, that were biocompatible and could be used to create cellular scaffolds. I was recruited to the project to use my background in polymer physics to uncover the underlying mechanism. Through my work, we were able to characterize exactly how these fibers were being formed, and how the process parameters could be tuned to control overall collagen content and fiber diameter. The result of this work was creating a technology that was scalable and produced fibers that were 100% collagen and closely matched the structure of natural collagen fibers. This created a first-in-world technology to produce collagen fibers and collagen fiber scaffolds that truly represent the natural extracellular matrix of our bodies. 

Biotech startups often face challenges related to funding and resource management. How have you navigated these challenges at 3DBioFibr? Have you been involved in securing funding or managing the financial aspects of the company?

Gurkaran: Raising investment is a core part of my role at 3D BioFibR. We started the company in June 2020, so these last 3 years, specifically the last 12-18 months, have been very tough for raising financing as an early-stage company. There have been many diverse challenges to navigate here, ranging from controllable aspects of how we are communicating our business, to uncontrollable aspects such as the state of funding available for early-stage biotech startups. 

While each of these challenges requires a specific and unique response, the overall philosophy we used was to ensure that we had a business strategy that we could stand behind. We are growing our business based on real problems we solve, our technology, and our team – our business strategy reflects what we solve, how we solve it, and why we are the right people to do it that way. At any given point, there are 100 ways forward, but we have picked 1 of those ways, based on the opportunities ahead of us, and the way we want to execute them. During the financing rounds, we presented that clearly, and let investors decide if it was for them or not. While we are a very coachable team, and take feedback when applicable to amend that strategy, it was important for us to stay true to ourselves through this, and bring investors on board who shared our vision, rather than making compromises to secure funding that could potentially create problems downstream with our investors.  

3D BioFibR
Copyright: 3D BioFibR

As an entrepreneur and leader, what is your vision for 3DBioFibr’s future? How do you plan to leverage your expertise and experience to drive the company’s growth and market success?

Gurkaran: 3D BioFibR has the potential to become the leader in ECM production for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, and my vision is to take the company there. Collagen fibers are a fundamental building block for tissues and organs – essentially every tissue and organ is built with collagen fibers. I understand that our team will never become experts in understanding how to make every tissue, with every cell type, for every indication. However, we are experts in collagen fiber production. We have unique expertise and technology that allow us to create collagen fibers that closely resemble those found in the body, and can add these to bioinks or hydrogels, or create customized 3D scaffolds, that match tissue architectures. Our plan is to partner this as widely as possible. There are companies and people working on specific indications and tissues, who understand that specific application far better than we will. We are looking to work with those folks and provide a more mechanically durable and physiologically relevant cell environment to support their development. And by doing so, I think we can drive tissue fabrication forward for all parts of the human body. 

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