Young entrepreneurs expand to engineer tissue for organ transplantation
The startup ClexBio in Oslo is a result of entrepreneurial love at first sight. The long-term goal of the founders is to engineer human tissue such as blood vessels for clinical transplantation. They have the rights to a tissue engineering technology developed at NTNU. The leader of the digital life project 3DLife is a member of their consortium. Recent funding from the Research Council of Norway allows them to expand. During Oslo Innovation Week ClexBio also hopes to get in touch with investors who are willing to enter the biotech field.
The need for organs for transplantation is increasing globally. Researchers and companies world-wide are working to grow organs from cells in the lab. The founders of the startup ClexBio in Oslo, Armend G. Håti and Manuel Schweikle, are convinced they have the best technology for this purpose.
– Our big vision is to bring engineered tissue to the clinic, starting with blood vessels before we leverage to other organs, says Schweikle.
Blood vessels are needed for transplantation themselves in for example bypass surgery, but are also key components of any tissue. They are required to supply tissue cells with nutrients such as oxygen, which the cells need to function and survive.
– The goal is to make patient specific tissues. We take the patient’s cells to the lab, make blood vessels in the lab and then retransplant the tissue, says Håti.
Unique biocompatible technology
So why should they be the ones to succeed? The answer lies in the unique tissue engineering technology they have patented. With the so-called CLEX technology*, Håti and Schweikle are the only actors with a technology that allows them to precisely develop a microscale hydrogel scaffold mimicking the natural matrix that the cells grow in in living organs. The hydrogel of ClexBio is made of alginate that has been refined from Norwegian brown algae. A key success factor is that they are able to accurately control the transition from liquid to solid state when they form the hydrogel scaffold in small channels on microchips. According to ClexBio this is a bottleneck in tissue engineering.
Devices that they are using to create tissue microstructures shown next to an ordinary pen that gives you an impression of the size. These devices are actually 3D printed themselves. Photo: ClexBio.
– Others working with similar technologies at the microscale level have problems with clogging of the channels since they cannot control their processes like we can, says Schweikle.
Håti adds that one huge challenge is not to kill the cells.
– Most others use methods that are harmful to the cells. We have an environment that is natural for the cells, and the cells know what to do – to form tissue like they would do in a healthy body.
– Our technology enables us to build a structure on single cell level. We are able to deposit the cells in a hierarchy next to each other and maintain the interactions and communications between the cells in the same way as in a living tissue, thus making the cells act like in a real tissue.
Commercialise parts of the technology for R&D in international biotech industry
To bring blood vessels to the market is a 10–15-year project. So how do they plan to survive to get there?
To fund the work leading them to their long-term goal, they also commercialise parts of the technology for use in research and development in biotech industry. With little industry in Norway, their customers are international.
Håti emphasises that they are selective to what they commercialise not to conflict with their long-term goal. One example of a product they can sell, is bio-ink composed of the hydrogel with cells for 3D tissue printers.
Entrepreneurial love at first sight
Both of Håti and Schweikle have worked on their PhDs at the Biophysics and Medical Technology research group at the Department of Physics at NTNU, so you would guess that this is the environment where they met. But their entrepreneurial story followed another more random path. When Schweikle worked at NTNU, Håti was at Harvard University in the US, so they actually never met at NTNU. Later on, after a postdoc period at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, Håti headed back to Norway and Aker BioMarine in Oslo. He collaborated with ShareLab – a lab facility for startups in Oslo. Schweikle on his side, worked on his PhD on biomaterials at the Institute of Clinical Dentistry at the Faculty of Dentistry at UiO. At a UiO event for young talents in 2019 he met one of the partners of ShareLab, Marius Øgaard, who, based on Schweikle’s interests, advised him to reach out to Håti.
– We met for a coffee, and it was entrepreneurial love at first sight, says Håti.
Now they are building the ClexBio history together in ShareLab in Oslo Science Park.
Consortium with digital life project leader
When Håti and Schweikle first met in august 2019 they were employed at Aker BioMarine and SINTEF in Trondheim, respectively, and started to look for funding opportunities and whom to work with.
They formed a consortium with former colleagues and experts in the fields at NTNU and SINTEF. They applied for Innovation Project for the Industrial Sector from the Research Council of Norway 17 May (!) 2020 and in the end of July they were granted NOK 6.3 million.
They now collaborate with the consortium to further develop the hydrogel material and to test more thoroughly how it affects the cells. Leader of the Digital Life Norway project 3DLife – emulating life in 3D with digital and experimental tissue models , professor Berit L. Strand at NTNU, is a member of this consortium.
Oslo Innovation Week and expansion next
ClexBio is member of The Life Science Cluster and on Monday 21 September Håti will present their work at the online event Investing in sustainability: Why life science matters now and in the future hosted by the cluster as part of Oslo Innovation Week.
Håti and Schweikle hope this will make investors aware of them.
– Investing in biotechnology startups is an immature field in Norway. The funding with regard to both the amounts of money and time needed is more challenging than for example information and communications technology (ICT).
The funding from the Research Council of Norway allows them to expand their staff. They are looking for a person with an entrepreneurial spirit and cell biology expertise. As a former member of the Digital Life Norway Research School, Schweikle thinks this environment is a place to look for the right person.
Visit the ClexBio website clexbio.com to find out more about the company and the technology. Note that ClexBio is registered in Norway under the name Nordovo Biosciences AS
*CLEX is an acronym for competitive ligand exchange crosslinking
Written by Norunn Torheim, Centre for Digital Life Norway