Swiss SME innovations: Printing heart tissue with groundbreaking technology

Revolutionary technology. How 3D screen printing is changing industrialized manufacturing. 

Human tissue fresh from a 3D printer? "Why not," said Exentis Group AG and Axenoll Life Sciences Ltd. Together they developed a unique 3D screen printing process to revolutionize 3D printing.

Visionaries. Entrepreneurs. Pioneers.

Dr. Gereon W. Heinemann, CEO of the Exentis Group, and Dr. Christian Leist, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Axenoll Life Sciences Ltd., spoke to us in an interview about innovative 3D printing, future projects, and the most important success factors for startups in Switzerland. 

Dr. Heinemann, you are the CEO of Exentis Group AG. How is your company making the world a better place?

Dr. Gereon W. Heinemann*: We have created a completely new 3D printing technology called 3D screen printing. This is a printing method that is not dependent on a specific material, and it is also innovative in that we can reduce waste compared with other production methods. The method needs only the material that is used in the end product. 

What specifically is the difference between your innovation and other 3D printing process?

Dr. Heinemann: Without question, the advantages of 3D screen printing are the flexible choice and combination of materials and the potential for large-scale production. Classic 3D printing is often limited in terms of quantity and the family of materials.

Our two-step method, however, allows us to process a much broader range of materials while enabling mass production. We can process materials with cold printing, which is important when using organic materials, because they would be harmed by heat. For other materials, however, the product is then heated at temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Celsius to achieve the right strength. 

Its business strategy is also diversified. Tell us about your make or buy business model.

Dr. Heinemann: Our business model has several layers. Apart from developing the technology and required machines, we are very focused on creating the right materials.

Also, although many customers are really excited about the technology, they don't have the volume to justify the purchase of their own machine. In this case, we handle production for the customer or we have the printing done by a contract manufacturer. If the customer's volume does increase, they can also decide to buy the machine at a later stage.

We also have an effective licensing model that allows us to license out certain areas, which keeps us from losing our focus on the diverse range of applications. So far, we have been successful doing this in a number of areas. 

In the field of bioprinting, Exentis has licensed out its printing technology to Axenoll Life Sciences AG. Dr. Leist, tell us about your company's exciting projects. 

Dr. Christian Leist:* Bioprinting is a very broad term. It includes the production of organic and non-organic materials. And it is precisely these areas that our projects focus on. We concentrate on cellular and molecular 3D bioprinting, like skin models, cell tissue such as heart tissue, microarrays, organoids, and microscalpels.

Axenoll is now able to take lab-grown human liver cells and print them on top of each other in just minutes. How is it even possible to print living cells?

Dr. Leist: In principle, we can print any material that can be produced as a powder or granulate. This includes, for instance, collagen and protein-based substances of all kinds as well as living cells. But we also use non-organic materials like silicon. This is essential for such things as manufacturing wound dressings. Ceramic can also be used to produce bone parts.

What do you think the limits are in bioprinting? Are there any limits at all?

Dr. Leist: I don't see any limits to bioprinting as a whole. But every technology has its limits. The standard methods known around the world – such as systems based on inkjet printing – are limited in terms of quantity, precision, and the delicate treatment of cells. I don't think 3D screen printing has technical limits – its limits are more of an economic nature.

How so? 

Dr. Leist: This technology is not economical when it comes to prototyping. Of course, it's possible with 3D screen printing, but there is so much effort involved that it's not profitable. 

Economic efficiency is definitely a given for both companies' development. What does an innovative Swiss company need to get ahead in today's world?

Dr. Heinemann: To me, there are a number of ingredients: First, of course, there is the focus on innovation. Second, it takes an interdisciplinary team. Ultimately, the best idea is useless if I don't have the means to make it a reality. We have a very good setup for both in Switzerland.

Dr. Leist: Comprehensive knowledge of multiple disciplines is key for our business. Axenoll relies on numerous experts: cell biologists, specialists from medical technology and from the printing industry, mechanical engineers, programmers, and many more.

What challenges have you faced on this journey?

Dr. Heinemann: For Exentis, it was certainly the step from initial testing to industrial application. Most of the time, complex processes like these take far longer than originally planned. It's important to develop and expand on a new technology over the long term and with careful consideration. Or to put it another way: Often, the revolutionary step is easier than the painstaking evolutionary work.

Dr. Leist: Every innovation faces the same challenges. You start with an idea. But you also need partners and strong arguments to convince others of your idea, product, and application. There's a dry period at the beginning. 

What keeps you awake at night as an entrepreneur?

Dr. Heinemann: Not taking the next step too soon, so that we can give the innovation a chance to mature. With 3D screen printing, we have reached a very mature stage already, but we certainly aren't finished yet. 

What else is missing?

Dr. Heinemann: We are looking for applications where manufacturers say "I can't get around 3D printing technology if I want to produce a certain product efficiently." We will have found that ideal if our process is the most efficient and economical solution for our customers.

Dr. Leist: It's the search for the ultimate area of application and this is not yet complete. 

Credit Suisse has supported Exentis Group AG as its banking partner since the technology firm began. What does this partnership mean to you, Dr. Heinemann?

Dr. Heinemann: It is an important partnership for me. As I said before, alongside the idea and the team, financial resources are essential for growing a company. Credit Suisse has supported us through various phases and growth processes, and has responded flexibly to our needs. I appreciate this a great deal and am absolutely confident that Credit Suisse will provide us with active support in the future as well.

How is Exentis moving into the future?

Dr. Heinemann: We see ourselves as a solutions provider. We don't see a problem. We see the solution.

So what solutions would Axenoll like to offer in the near future, Dr. Leist?

Dr. Leist: Our next goal is to use organic and non-organic materials with our customers to produce quantities that allow them to test systems successfully. 

Any final tips for budding entrepreneurs?

Dr. Leist: Scientific knowledge and an idea are only one part of it. To create a company you need an application. And you certainly cannot do so without business expertise. There has to be a need on the market and a team that supports the development.

Dr. Heinemann: There are lots of startups in Switzerland nowadays. To succeed, you need to combine the right people with the right idea. It's not just the researcher, it's the whole team that drives a company's success. Also make sure to keep your focus and personal goals in mind.