Unlike our fleshy human bodies, when trees break a limb, they don’t have casts put on their branches. The vital secret of plant structures lies in the cellulose – the cell walls of the organism – that form the scaffolding to rebuild what’s broken.
Ottawa startup Spiderwort believes it can take these structures found in nature and apply them to the human body with biomaterials that could regrow skin, bones and even spinal tissue – without the fear of rejection.
You’ve probably already heard of one of the firm’s co-founders. Ottawa’s Dr. Andrew Pelling rose to TED fame with his 2016 talk, in which he showed a human ear grown from an apple.
Spiderwort spawned from Pelling’s lab at the University of Ottawa, where he, PhD student Daniel Modulevsky and post-doctorate Charles Cuerrier were researching biomaterials.
Cuerrier had been an academic for his entire career, but came from an entrepreneurial family of hotel and grocery store owners. Now the CEO of Spiderwort, he tells Techopia that he always knew he wanted to start a company and saw the team on the edge of a medical revolution with its novel approach to biomaterials.
“I saw this opportunity where I was really at the beginning of something huge. I had to convince Andrew and Daniel that we have to press ourselves to create a biotechnologies company and to push ourselves with our knowledge,” he says.
It’s a market that’s on the rise, according to a global research firm. In a recent report, MarketsandMarkets clocked the value of the biomaterials industry at US$70.9 billion in 2016 and expects that to more than double to nearly US$150 billion by 2021.
The potentials of biomaterials go well beyond growing an apple on an ear. Yes, soft tissues such as nose and ear cartilage are part of the package, but the cellulose can be programmed for more elaborate structures.
Spiderwort’s biomaterials could radically change how patients with broken bones recover. The current recovery procedure is a painful mechanical and manual process for patients, taking months at a time to ensure bones set properly. Biomaterials transplanted into an arm or leg could help guide bones to grow into the right shape and position.
Cuerrier says biomaterials are a “really competitive” industry today, but Spiderwort has an edge that would put its products above the rest. Traditional materials fall into two main streams: synthetic body parts made of silicon, or more authentic materials extracted from cadavers.
Squeamishness and ethical considerations aside, these solutions are often rejected from the bodies they’re placed in.
“These are materials that, in the end, could be toxic for the body,” Cuerrier says.
Spiderwort’s cellulose approach is, in a word, more natural. It ensures biocompatibility, he says, so “the body will accept it like its own.”
Cuerrier believes that one day, Spiderwort’s biomaterials will be able to guide the regrowth of spinal cord structures in paraplegic patients. It’s a lofty goal, but it’s what makes the combined challenges of biotechnology and entrepreneurialism worth it.
“To be able to say to the patient you have a chance to walk again, to feel again … that will be incredible.”
The barriers to entry in biomedicine are high, and for good reason. Startups hoping to bring products or devices into the healthcare field have high bars to clear that include years of clinical testing to be certified safe for public use. It’ll be two to three years before surgeons in hospitals are using Spiderwort’s products.
“When a company is focused on developing a web application, the tools that you need are a good computer and good programmers … but in life science industry, we are talking about huge infrastructures, research lab … it’s extremely expensive,” Cuerrier says.
To date, the firm has subsisted with the help of multiple research grants, alongside support from the University of Ottawa and Invest Ottawa, where it lives in the incubator space at Bayview Yards. It’s also in the midst of raising a $250,000 seed round.
Local successes such as Shopify and Nortel have branded Ottawa as a hub for software and telecom firms, but Cuerrier says the local startup story goes deeper than that. He says the city has several firms working in the health-care field, whether it be clinical research, new devices or biotechnologies.
Spiderwort is among the local companies that are part of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which loosely refers to the intersection of physical, digital and biological technologies. Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay signalled in discussions about the agency’s strategic plan that he’d like the capital to focus on firms that can capitalize on this new wave of tech.
“There is a health science industry in Ottawa, and we are doing really amazing things that will for sure change the lives of Ontarians and Canadians,” says Cuerrier.
Product: Biomaterials that could regrow skin, bones
Key players: Charles Cuerrier (CEO), Dr. Andrew Pelling, Daniel Modulevsky
Funding: Multiple research grants; currently raising $250,000 seed round