Implants from the 3D printer

By investing in Meditool, a Chinese firm specialized in 3D printing, Evonik has secured access to a market that will grow at an incredible pace in the coming years: custom-printed medical devices made of high-performance polymers.

TEXTGEORG DAHM

Included Media

Erning Cao doesn’t want to have just any cake. He wants the best. The chocolate cake, so to speak. That’s not so easy, “because the cake buffet is richly stocked,” says this investment director for Evonik Venture Capital’s Asia Pacific North region.

The all-you-can-eat buffet Cao refers to is the market for 3D-printed implants. According to estimates prepared by Strategy&, a consulting firm from the United States, that market will grow to nearly 5.6 billion dollars by 2030—nearly 22 times sales revenue in 2015. Products on this market include artificial skull components, spinal discs, and new sections of bone for replacing cancerous tissue. And that’s just the beginning: “No field showcases the possibilities of 3D printing like medical technology,” says Marc Knebel, who is responsible for medical applications of high-performance polymers at Evonik. “In a lot of industries, all you do is print out prototypes, but here you make a customized product for each individual patient.”

»No field showcases the possibilities of 3D printing like medical technology«

MARC KNEBEL

RESPONSIBLE FOR MEDICAL APPLICATIONS OF HIGH-PERFORMANCE POLYMERS AT EVONIK

PEEK plays a key role

Evonik has now joined forces with one of the most promising startups in this sector: Evonik Venture Capital has become the lead investor in Meditool, a Chinese firm specializing in 3D printing. The Shanghai company’s strength lies in using data from CAT scans and other sources to print implants from PEEK, which Evonik sells under the brand name VESTAKEEP®. Evonik was the first to manufacture this high-performance polymer in the form of a printable, medical-grade filament. “We have partnered with Meditool as a supplier for several years now and have already played a role in developing individual products,” says Cao. “But now our relationship is completely different—now we can shape the future together.”

High-precision printing: In the field of medical technology, 3D printers are making individualized manufacturing possible.

PEEK has long been used in medical technology applications and offers numerous advantages over metals like titanium, from which implants are typically made. “An important characteristic is its low thermal conductivity, which is particularly important for cranial plates,” says Knebel. “PEEK also weighs much less than solid titanium, and we can adapt the material properties better. Plus, more and more patients have metal allergies—that makes plastic a better choice, especially in the jaw area.”

Implants for the spine

Meditool focuses on developing craniomaxillofacial implants from VESTAKEEP® filaments. Other products include detailed, highly faithful replicas of organs and vessels that surgeons can use for planning complicated surgeries—a physical model of the organ and all of its unique features is far superior to a CAT scan.

Over the long term, however, Meditool aims to move into an even more sophisticated segment: implants for spinal surgery. One of the first of these products are what are known as cages—artificial spinal discs that the body’s tissues grow into and that can be used instead of bone that the surgeon has removed from the patient.

“The material has been tried and tested,” says Knebel. The first implants were used in the 1980s, and Evonik itself has been in the market for ten years. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of implants,” Knebel points out. PEEK implants were initially made through injection molding or they were milled or lathed from solid rods—material, in other words, that had already been processed. “Our 3D-printed filament allows us to work with virgin material, so to speak, which means we generate less waste.”

Meditool develops skull implants made of PEEK plastic
VESTAKEEP® filaments are used to make cranial, facial, and mandibular implants.

Most of all, 3D printing can be used for making complex structures, allowing physicians and material scientists to explore the limits of what is possible. Evonik and Meditool, on the other hand, will now work together to discover what is actually doable. “Our main motivation for this investment was the unique combination of technical competence and clinical expertise that Meditool possesses,” Knebel says. One of the company’s founders is a physician who has worked both in hospitals and in industry. By collaborating with Meditool, Evonik material developers can learn at an even earlier stage what doctors require in the operating room and the direction that research and development is headed in hospitals and universities.

The teams are constantly exploring the possibilities of the material so that they can replace even more of the body’s structures. “One of our projects was to print thin webs for vascular surgery,” says Knebel. “And now we’re collaborating on porous structures that do a better job of growing into the bone.” Working with PEEK, Knebel points out, requires a completely new mindset: “Ten years ago, medical device manufacturers were still metal-processing companies, and their approach was entirely different. What’s exciting about 3D printing is that it means we can take advantage of a whole new level of design freedom and put that to use for patients.”

Another exciting question is how regulatory agencies will handle the new process. While PEEK has already been introduced in medical applications, 3D printing is still relatively new. “The requirements from the US Food and Drug Administration are pretty vague,” says Cao. “And China will probably issue its own guidelines in the coming months. But after that, it will take several more years before we can market novel implants on a large scale.”

This is the reason why craniomaxillofacial implants remain an important pillar of Meditool’s business. And not just due to cash-flow considerations: “Gaining more experience and continuing to maintain our contacts with hospitals and universities is even more important.”

More and more startup founders from the US and Europe are coming to China

Up to now, the US and Germany have led the market for 3D printer manufacturing—a look at patent application numbers, however, paints a different picture: some 44,000 of these are from the US, but in second place is China with nearly 19,000 patents. Germany comes in third with around 10,000 patents. “China is becoming the biggest intellectual property owner,” says Cao. “Which is why the government is making a bigger effort today to protect its rights to that intellectual property.”

Artificial skull in clinic
Highly detailed replicas: The high-quality plastic implants are in demand at clinics and universities.

Cao has led Evonik’s venture capital (VC) activities in China for two years, and he is impressed with how dynamic the market is: “Every workday, 1300 new companies are founded in Shanghai alone,” he says. “Seven to eight million people graduate from universities in China each year—no other country has that kind of talent pool. The domestic market is huge. And the venture capital industry is very active.” Chinese entrepreneurs are not the only ones attracted to those conditions, he says—more and more startup founders from the US and Europe are coming to China.

Cao also explains that those accustomed to conducting VC business in other regions of the world will have to change their mindset: “Trust plays a bigger role in negotiations here than the black-and-white legalistic approach. Our challenge is to ensure both: trust and clear contractual terms.”

As Knebel observes, “Investments in Europe or the United States are often easier to put into place. Working with China is a little more intense, but the payoff is bigger. Where we take one step, the Chinese take two.” Up to now, Chinese entrepreneurs have been mostly engaged in the fields of artificial intelligence, computer hardware, and the internet of things—in communication between machines and devices, in other words. “3D printing is still a niche market here,” says Cao. “But our stake in Meditool ensures our access to the most interesting player.”

»Working with China is a little more intense, but the payoff is bigger. Where we take one step, the Chinese take two«

ERNING CAO

INVESTMENT DIRECTOR FOR EVONIK VENTURE CAPITAL'S ASIA PACIFIC NORTH REGION

For Meditool, the investment round led by Evonik will make it easier to gain international recognition. “Meditool has a presence at international trade shows and conferences, and already has a worldwide network,” says Knebel. “But we can help the company grow its global footprint.”

Cao will support that development. He heads up the supervisory board and sees himself as a catalyst for Meditool’s further development in an expanding environment. The buffet is open.

More than just ROI: Evonik Venture Capital

Nanomaterials for treating wounds, 3D-printed implants, synthetic fuels: these are just a few examples of the new future technologies supported by Evonik Venture Capital, a global venture capital business that has invested in 19 startups and eight funds since 2012. Their work is geared toward more than just the desired return on investment: “Everything we do has strategic importance for Evonik too,” says Bernhard Mohr, who heads up Evonik Venture Capital. “When we invest in a startup, then we want to work together closely and in a spirit of trust—because that will allow us to tap into new technology and business fields more quickly.”

 

From its sites in Germany, North America, and China, the VC team reviews around 1000 startups each year. “The most important question for us is, ‘Does the company have pursuits that overlap with our innovation and growth areas?’” Mohr explains. “If it fits into that mold, then we immediately bring the corresponding business units into the loop. They can help us assess and shape the partnership—when we acquire a minority share, we usually conclude a cooperation agreement too.”

 

Investments are planned for periods of three to five years: “And if they’re a really good fit, then we’ll acquire the startup in its entirety,” Mohr says. “Take Structured Polymers, for example: our High Performance Polymers (HPP) business line bought that 3D printing company in 2018.”

 

Evonik VC does not focus solely on the growth phase—it engages in the early phase as well, primarily through investment funds such as Germany’s High-Tech Gründerfonds or the GRC SinoGreen Fund of China. “These fund investments also serve as a lighthouse for us, generating visibility and giving us insight into exciting technologies,” Mohr observes. “Sometimes you just really need to get on board early if you don’t want to miss the train.”

Photos: plainpicture/R. Mohr, Evonik (3)

PUBLICATION DATE

29 October 2019

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