ICYMI: Carbon’s 3D Medtech Play


Carbon’s unique 3D liquid interface process creates the products it prints out of a pool of liquid, an approach that it says overcomes the challenges of traditional layering. The well-funded start-up has partnered with big players in numerous industries. Johnson & Johnson invested in its latest financing round, which points toward opportunities in medtech. An excerpt from Editor-in Chief, David Cassak’s recent profile of Carbon.

Carbon Inc.’s novel 3D manufacturing technology has attracted the attention of many large corporations in diverse industries. The five-year old start-up has forged partnerships with the likes of Adidas Inc., BMW, General Electric Co., and Google.

It has also been successful at fundraising, bringing in more than $400 million in venture capital from some of the leading growth equity investors and, in its most recent round, from key strategics as well including Johnson & Johnson Development Corp.

JJDC’s investment, while largely financially-driven, underscores the opportunities for Carbon and its corporate partners in medical devices, particularly in dental and orthopedics.

Carbon’s co-founder and CEO Joseph DeSimone, PhD, is no stranger to the life sciences. He was already a force and influence in materials science before he co-founded Carbon in 2013. A professor of Chemistry at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, DeSimone had begun his research on polymers decades earlier at Virginia Tech, where he received his PhD in 1990.

Even as he built a distinguished career in academia, however, DeSimone played something of the role of an entrepreneur, helping to launch several start-ups including bioabsorbable stent pioneer, BVS (Bioabsorbable Vascular Solutions), with Richard Stack, MD, and Bill Starling, that evolved into Abbott Laboratories Inc.’s first generation Absorb bioresorbable stent; he also founded a polymer-based drug delivery company called Liquidia Technologies Inc., with a technology based on imprint lithography, using precision microelectronics techniques to create particle-sized drugs used to treat pulmonary hypertension and other diseases in the lungs. (Liquidia went public on NASDAQ on July 13, 2018, raising $50 million.)

DeSimone notes that one of the lessons he learned in his work on bioresorbable stents was that “because of the regulatory burden, you want to keep things as simple as possible.” In developing the stent, the base material changed, but everything else about the stent was the same. “We used the same coating that everyone else used, the same drug, the same coating material; all we did was change the stent material,” he says.

That perspective has informed Carbon’s strategy in life sciences generally and medtech more specifically, where the company has some ambitious goals. Says DeSimone, “We want to improve patient lives by facilitation patient specific or customized solutions,” he says. Carbon also wants to help foster broader access to healthcare with “distributed manufacturing,” helping at the same time to reduce system-wide costs. And Carbon wants to “treat and cure diseases in new ways,” all with devices that feature the lowest regulatory burdens.

“Carbon wants to ‘treat and cure diseases in new ways,’ all with devices that feature the lowest regulatory burdens.”

Carbon’s early focus in medtech will be on Class 1 devices, “where regulators don’t get nervous about a new material made with a new technology,” says Carbon research scientist Steve Pollack, PhD, former Director of the Office of Science and Engineering Laboratories, the applied research arm of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. That means devices in areas like dental, hearing, and diagnostics, with products like things like respiratory masks, splints, endoscopy tips, and trocars. In particular, DeSimone calls the dental market an “amazing” opportunity—another of Carbon’s “killer apps,” he says—producing dental models for crowns and other dentures and thermo-formed aligners; Carbon earlier this year introduced a dental surgical drill guide, and the company has the first FDA-approved 3D-printed dentures now on the market. 

Indeed, Carbon estimates that half of its printers this year will go into local and regional dental labs that create these devices for dentists, settings that have the economies of scale and throughput that 3D manufacturing requires. “You have people in those labs who are working 24/7. Some are running three shifts a day, and some of our dental printers are running 90 hours a week,” says DeSimone.

Carbon earlier this year introduced a dental surgical drill guide, and the company has the first FDA-approved 3D-printed dentures now on the market. Indeed, Carbon estimates that half of its printers this year will go into local and regional dental labs.

Though it is a tiny market compared with medtech, and even tinier compared with biopharma, dental was a logical place to start because there is a significant need for custom products such as crowns, dentures, and surgical guides. As a result, 3D printing is already widely in use there. As regulators become comfortable with its manufacturing approach, DeSimone adds, Carbon will move quickly into more regulated products. “We’ll start with simple devices and begin ramping up our efforts,” which will likely mean a move into areas such as orthopedics, ophthalmology, drug delivery, and other implants.

Adds Steve Pollack, dental “has been a really good starting point for us, but I think the big opportunity is still in front of us as we look to orthopedics and other surgical instruments.” There’s also a significant play in biopharma, particularly around drug delivery technologies.

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