Exclusive interview for SPINOFF.COM with Dr. Tuhin Bhowmick, the director and co-founder of Pandorum Technologies Pvt. Ltd, about their 3D tissue engineering technology. Pandorum Technologies Pvt. Ltd is a Bangalore based biotechnology company with the focus on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. With its distinct synergy of life science, engineering, and clinical competencies, the company designs and manufactures three-dimensional functional human tissues, intended for medical research and therapeutics. Pandorum Technologies believes in the development and dissemination of high-end innovations aimed at addressing the most important challenges in healthcare. They are dedicated to using the scientific and technological prowess to elevate the quality and extend human life.
SOC: Dear Dr. Bhowmick, we are so grateful for your generosity this day in spending time speaking with us and sharing your insights about your technology. Our investors and we would like to learn more about your professional background.
Dr. Bhowmick: I'm a structural biologist. I received my Ph.D. in the field of protein crystallography. We investigated the structure of proteins and other biomolecules through biophysical methods. The main purpose was to learn how to look into the structure of molecules which are basically the building blocks of our body. DNA and proteins are involved in different functions of our body. Knowing the structure of these molecules is important because the structure gives function. Once you understand that, you can also figure out how to engineer the structure for specific function. For example, in case of a drug design if there is an enzyme which performs a specific function, and you want to block that enzyme, then you can design an inhibitor based on the structure of the enzyme. In other words, a molecule can be thought of as a LEGO. And you can build different structures with these LEGO blocks, to get different properties, like you can make ‘smart’ materials. Now, I’m based in Hamburg, Germany and I'm doing research in European Molecular Biology Lab. I'm working on the aspects of structural biology and neurobiology to understand how nerve cells connect to communicate with each other. So, this is what my academic background about.
SOC: Could you, please, tell us the story of your technology creation.
Dr. Bhowmick: We established the company in 2011 but the idea appeared in 2009. During that time, I was doing my Ph.D. in Indian Institute of Science which is one of the premier institutes in Bangalore. I had a colleague of mine, Arun Chandru, from the Department of Aerospace Engineering. And I was doing my Ph.D. in the Department of Physics. Together we were discussing different aspects, and in a couple years, we established the company. We wanted to know how to design molecules and materials which can perform different kinds of functions. We were looking for something like the wound healing bandage which would be like a second skin. What I mean, is that many patients who were on chemotherapy or who were in the hospital for a long time laying down on a bed, they have these large surface wounds which are called bedsores. They're very difficult to heal because these patients don't have immunity so they get easily infected. They are in terminal stage and you want to give them a better quality of life and to heal such types of wounds. One of the ways is to make something which is like a second skin for the patients. It is made up of a material which is much biocompatible. It has similar properties as in the structure of your skin. And at the same time, it would be a great benefit if we could put some drug molecules into this material. That will help to reduce the bacterial infections (lat. Infectio) in the wound. That is why we were trying to find out how we can engineer this at the molecular level.
SOC: Was your project funded by any state financing or grants? Has it already received any honors or awards?
Dr. Bhowmick: Everything started with the winning the first prize in a contest which is called BEST in 2010. BEST stands for the biotechnology entrepreneurship for student teams. The aim of a contest is to invite all science graduates to apply for entrepreneurship. It’s a national level competition. It is organized by the Department of Biotechnology, Govt. of India, and by the private sector, ABLE (Association for Biotechnology Led Enterprises). This contest was a great opportunity for us. We got to know how to build a business model and how to transform a concept into a work. What was more important, is that we realized that the technology is not only about developing a wound healing bandage or a second skin - but it’s a platform technology. It is something which can be used for 3D printing of living cells and making lab-grown tissues. We designed such types of molecules that could bind to human cells like it happens in the natural context. This gives then cell a familiar environment. We designed the molecules in such a way that they can stay in a solution form, so you can put the cells in it and print them as a layer. If you shine the light on them, they will start to crosslink and become solid with the cells inside. Because we're using a ‘soft’ light, it is a biocompatible process. We don’t use any toxic crosslinkers. That means it can be used as a bio-ink for 3D printing. In 2012, we got another grant which is called BIG (Biotechnology Ignition Grant). With this grant, we demonstrated that the bio-ink works. In 2014, we got SBIRI (Small Business Industry Research Initiative) grant. In 2016, we started to work on liver cells and tried to make three-dimensional liver tissues in the lab. 2016 was also the year, when we raised the angel money for the first time. Till then we were on grants from the government which was a significant help.
SOC: Could you please share some information about the team members who supported you and the project?
Dr. Bhowmick: The founders are Dr. Arun Chandru and me. Dr. Arun Chandru is an engineer by training. He specializes in nanofabrication methods. He received his Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Science. Dr. Sonal Asthana who is the liver transplant specialist brings an important clinician’s point of view to our projects. Three of us are the core team. Besides, we have a majority of scientists and engineers working with us for Pandorum’s projects.
SOC: What are the unique selling points of your technology?
Dr. Bhowmick: We have two projects. One is the lab-grown liver tissue for drug screening and the second one is the bioengineered cornea. These projects have a little bit different business models. Many pharma companies do clinical trials in different types of animal models. Animal testing is widely used to develop medicines. It is expensive and painful to the animals, besides animal's biology differs from human. In many countries, the use of animals for testing becomes more and more restricted because of different kinds of bioethical issues. For example, think of this as a liver toxicity test. If you want to try 96 drug molecules, you have to sacrifice at least 96 mice. It's one test per animal. And generally more than one test is done per drug molecules. So the number goes up. We are trying to replace this by using tissue-engineered human mini-livers. In this case, lets imagine the product as 96 mini-liver tissues in a standard 96-well plate format. So one such plate can replace the need to use 96 animals. There is a big value here in terms of quality and cost. The Pharma companies like to fail early and fail cheap. This is a research tool which can be used by the pharma companies for lab testing, to figure out which drug works and which does not. We are already at an advanced stage of beta testing. This product will go to the market in a much shorter period of time with respect to our second project.
The second project is the bioengineered cornea for human applications. It’s an application in the field of regenerative medicine. This is a flagship project of the company for multiple important reasons. The cornea is like our window to the world. It is a transparent layer in front of the eye which performs the protection function and allows the light to pass inside. In India, there are 1.2 million cases of bilateral corneal blindness and about 5-6 million of unilateral damage. Conventional methods such as transplant and keratoplasty are limited by the supply of donated eyes and availability of skilled personnel to execute complicated surgeries. India gets around 17.000 to 20.000 donated corneas for transfer in a year. There is a huge demand-supply gap. We have a solution which can help this situation. We put some specialized cells in a customized solution. These are specialized cells which are involved in the corneal wound healing. We extract the cells from the donated eye and use them as a part of our formulation. We put this formulation to the patient who has the corneal damage. We fill the wound with the formulation. Once it is applied to the patient’s eye, it solidifies within the seconds. Cells start to proliferate and regenerate the tissue. In the period from three to six months, the wound will be slowly healed, and the patients will get their vision back. Our liquid cornea is the unique product, as there is nothing similar available in the market at the moment. In addition, it is the product of national relevance. But still, we have to do multiple trials, first in animals and then in humans. The Liquid Cornea will be available for the patients only around 2022. It takes much more time for such product development. We are now at animal testing stage with the liquid cornea.
SOC: What is the investment structure of your company?
Dr. Bhowmick: We have just completed Series A round and received the money from angel investors and venture capitals. We can use these funds till 2020-21 to fulfill different milestones for both projects, to move from the prototype stage to the product stage and to bring it to the market.
SOC: Do you have your own unique strategy which you consider your technology is strong at?
Dr. Bhowmick: It is strong at the strategy of R&D. At the current stage, we are mainly focused on the product development.
SOC: Please tell us about your criteria for partners' selection.
Dr. Bhowmick: I have two main criteria for the partners' selection. First of all, we should have the same goal. The second important thing is the complementarity. For example, we have collaborated with a group of skillful doctors and surgeons at L V Prasad Eye Institute in India, and they are the part of the National Eye Bank. So, in such type of collaboration, both sides have complementary skills. We are good at product development, biomaterial research, and cell biology. But the important component for our product can be derived from the human eye. We need to have such collaborators who will give us the access to the donated eyes. When we develop the product or a formulation which have to be tested on animals or humans, we will need the doctors and the clinicians. So, the combination of the same goal and complementary skills makes the best partners.
SOC: What key intellectual property does your company have?
Dr. Bhowmick: We have multiple patents related to the two projects.
SOC: The investors will want to get a clear picture of how many rounds of investments have you completed? Are you seeking the investments at the moment? What is the volume and time limits?
Dr. Bhowmick: We don’t seek the investment immediately. The current fundraising should take us to Series B round in next two years. But we are also looking for the expansion outside India. We want to set up the lab in the U.S., and also we are looking for the different options in Europe. Regarding the liquid cornea, we are now at the animal trial stage. But soon we will apply for human trials. We would also like to start these kinds of regulatory applications in the U.S. or in Europe. There will be a big amount of the international operations which will start next year. We will be looking at a range of 10 to 20 million dollars for this expansion, and we may start looking for funds earlier than we think.
SOC: Could you please describe your ideal investor? What aspects are important for you?
Dr. Bhowmick: We are looking for the smart money. So, the investors should not only put their funds into the project but also have other value additions, such as connections to people and resources that will be useful for going forward.
SOC: Could you specify the most convenient way you would like to receive inquiries from potential investors?
Dr. Bhowmick: I’d prefer to start with the e-mail, and after we can have a phone call.
Dear Dr. Bhowmick, SPINOFF.COM would like to express gratitude for the time you have dedicated to this interview. We are pleased to forward the interview to all potential investors and partners and we will observe the development and success of your technology with great pleasure and interest.