Philadelphia-based start-up BioBots is aiming to shake up the human tissue engineering -- or "3D bioprinting" -- space by making its desktop 3D bioprinters available for only $5,000 to scientists, engineers, and medical professionals who qualify for its beta testing program.

This low-cost product strategy aims at putting bioprinters into the hands of as many professionals in the biotech and medical fields as possible. It has the potential to unleash a wave of innovation in the biotech world, and possibly catapult this upstart into the bigger leagues.

BioBots at SXSW's Accelerator competition. Source: BioBots.

BioBots: Aiming to democratize the bioprinting world
BioBots was founded by several recent graduates of the University of Pennsylvania. Among a field of 48 finalists, whittled down from more than 500 entrants, the upstart from "Rocky's" hometown knocked out the competition for "Most Innovative" honors at Oracle Corp.'s South by Southwest 2015 Accelerator venture competition last month. SXSW has a reputation as a breeding ground for innovative new ideas in the tech realm.

The company's taking preorders for its low-cost, high-resolution desktop bioprinter, called "BioBot 1," with unit sales reportedly in the double digits. Its $25,000 starting price for the general public might seem steep, but bioprinters typically cost considerably more. Much more interesting, however, is BioBots' strategy of almost giving away its printers for $5,000 to scientists, engineers, and medical professionals who qualify for its beta testing program. There should be a lot of takers if the product functions reasonably well.

A readily available $5,000 desktop 3D bioprinter brings to mind the birth of PCs in an era when it took a king's ransom to buy a computer or Bill Gates-like techie skills to build one. So BioBots could usher in the democratization of bioprinting, allowing small research entities and individual scientists to better compete with the more deep-pocketed. This could advance the company's technology much quicker than it would likely be able to do on its own. The greater the number of technical experts who are tinkering with the BioBot 1, the more feedback the company gets -- essentially free assistance in improving the product's capabilities and performance.

Is BioBots a threat to Organovo?

Organovo Holdings (ONVO -3.90%) was entirely a developmental stage company until late last year when it released its first commercial product, the exVive3D human liver tissue assay test. This product represents an unprecedented accomplishment, as it retains key liver functions for more than 40 days, which the company claims makes it the best method for testing the potential liver toxicity effects of drugs before the clinical trial stages. 

While there's tremendous promise in this product and the company's technology in general, Organovo is a speculative stock. The company has yet to prove it can generate notable revenue, let alone turn a profit, and shareholders can expect continued dilution as the company issues more shares to generate funds.  

Organovo investors don't need to immediately concern themselves with an upstart like BioBots, in my view. However, it would be wise to keep in mind that the greater the number of scientists, engineers, and medical researchers that have access to 3D bioprinters, the greater the potential for more breakthroughs in the bioprinting space -- and, thus, more competition for Organovo. 

A burgeoning in 3D bioprinting 

Source: Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine.

3D bioprinting is a diverse field, but the term usually refers to using 3D printing technology to print animal and human cells to produce three-dimensional, functional tissues. The great hope of many is that ultimately bioprinting will be able to create fully functional solid human organs such as the liver, heart, and kidneys for transplant purposes.

Human tissues produced by 3D bioprinting closely mimic the responses of human organs when exposed to a drug or other substance. As such, those involved in bioprinting for now are primarily targeting pharmaceutical and biotech companies; the technology has the potential to greatly speed up the lengthy and exorbitantly expensive drug development process -- a $50 billion per year market. A host of other potential applications are also being explored, including testing of cosmetics and other personal care items. 

A good number of entities are involved in 3D bioprinting, though the majority are academic research organizations. Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine, for instance, is one of the early pioneers in the field. It's been using the technology for some time to build tissues and select (flat and non-solid) organs used for transplants. Wake Forest is also involved in a technology that uses bioprinting in its first step, called "body on a chip." Additionally, there are a handful of formidable private companies in the bioprinting space, most notably Switzerland-based Insphero. 

Let's print a wrap...
3D bioprinting has mind-blowing potential to help humanity -- and make a mint for the company or companies that develop a successful strategy. The Holy Grail, of course, is the potential for the technology to print fully functional solid human organs for transplant. More than 6,000 people in the United States alone die each year waiting for a transplant. However, even if that goal is never reached, the potential implications of bioprinting are still staggering, given it could greatly increase the speed and safety of the drug development process.

It's too early to tell how BioBots could shake-up the competitive landscape. Stay tuned, as I'll continue to follow this start-up's progress.