Bioprinting, M&A blunders, and how to tell if a biotech startup is destined to fail

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Artur Aira, CEO Active Health Tech, ex-BICO group


Bioprinting, M&A blunders, and how to tell if a biotech startup is destined to fail

We sit down with Artur Aira, a seasoned leader in the life science industry, to discuss his journey, the evolution of 3D bioprinting, and his insights into successful business strategies within the field. 

Artur is a giant in the life science sector.  

His career spans over three decades. He’s held C-level leadership roles in diagnostics, biotech, and pharma. Cell culture has been close to his heart since he started at bioMérieux in 2001. 

Artur entered the world of 3D cell culture when he heard about CELLINK in 2018. He joined them as a Board Member before he transitioned to the role of Director of CELLINK’s bioprinting arm.  Between 2022-2024, Artur took the role of Senior VP & BA Director of BICO group. He handled 14 acquisitions and played a pivotal role in developing BICO into the billion-dollar industry leader it is today.  

He started his life-science consulting company, Active Health Tech, in 2024. He helps clients execute successful M&A deals, drawing from his experience with 40+ acquisitions.  

Artur is also on the board of a few promising life-science startups and is an angel investor. 

The evolution of 3D bioprinting & challenges to widespread adoption

What were the challenges you faced at CELLINK in the early days? 

Artur: One of the biggest challenges was to develop trust with users. To show them that bioprinting worked and what results it could produce. The problem was, and still is, that the market isn’t standardised.  

When you do traditional cell culture, you have a method. It's regulated. You have comparable results. But it’s difficult with 3D printing because there is still no consensus. 

We’re starting to get there, but we’re still in the early-adoption phase. To get to widescale adoption, we still need more standardisation and regulation. 

How do we move toward standardisation? 

Artur: I think you need to create ‘islands’ for applications and move little by little that way.  

Take the low-hanging fruit. The retina, iris, or cartilage, for example. Things that are easier to replicate and easier to get regulatory guidelines in place.  

From a business perspective, we need to enable users to develop these standardised methods and to push regulators. At BICO, we quickly realised that we couldn't create a standard ourselves.  

We needed the scientific community to achieve it. Our users. Our job was to find scientists who saw the potential in 3D culture methods and enable them to push the boundaries and publish their results.  

We were active in enabling the scientific community. We helped people to come together and test these new concepts. If you go to SLAS, for example, you’ll see that there are a lot of papers now on 3D cell culture. So, the industry is moving there, but you need to let users drive it 

Now there are hundreds of papers where the authors are using CELLINK systems. And that's important. Once you have that proof, it's much easier to sell the system.  

It’s like what happened with PCR. When Roche introduced it together with Organon, they created something they called the ‘homebrew’. You got the ingredients to make your own recipe. Then you could publish your recipe in an open-source database so others could use it too.  

Roche took the most popular recipes, packaged them, and sold them as commercial kits. That was a clever way of becoming the pioneer in PCR.   

And it's how that industry became standardised. 

It’s something we tried to replicate at BICO. Our users could develop thousands of biomaterials in the same time it took us to make ten. 

How do you incentivise users to perform this research?  

Artur: One way is to place a system at their site free of charge. Another way is to create an innovation award. That's something that we did at bioMérieux. It was a successful way to get young scientists interested because there was a financial reward for their work.

Drink a lot of coffee with the companies that you’re going to acquire.

- Artur Aira

Let’s talk life science M&A. Stats from the Harvard Review showed that 70-90% of acquisitions fail.  

What are people typically getting wrong during acquisition deals, from both the buyer side and the seller side? 

Artur: If you acquire a company, you’re not acquiring a company because they have good products. You acquire a company because they have good people. That they have good products is just a result of having good people in the organisation.  

Companies underestimate how important this is. The problem is that if you don’t acknowledge the talent of the people you’re acquiring, you risk developing a psychological feeling that you’re better than them — because you’re acquiring them.  

Instead of humbly saying, 'Hey, you’re better than us. That's why we’re acquiring you. Because we need your competence.’ 

They feel that. And this feeling can kill deals. 

If you have a humble attitude from the beginning, the integration process will be much smoother. From the moment you start talking to a company you want to acquire, motivate them. Tell them how good of a job they’ve done. That they’ve been able to do things that you haven’t and that's why you're interested in acquiring them.  

The other thing that kills acquisition deals is when the strategic expectations of the buyer and seller aren’t aligned. Some of the best advice an old boss gave me was to drink a lot of coffee with the companies that you’re going to acquire.  

And I mean, it's common sense. When you find a partner, you need to get to know that person well before you get married. It's not more difficult than that.  

The problem is that many companies only see acquisitions as legal, financial, and commercial things to do. They forget about the people. Their values, culture, competencies, and expectations.

For example, if a Swedish company is acquiring an American company. They must consider the cultural constraints. What do they expect from a leader or manager? Swedish companies are often flat. They’re built on consensus. While American companies are hierarchic. It's different. 

What's funny is that big companies have fantastic processes to recruit one person. You know, you have three to four interviews, different tests, you have a psychologist, etc.  

 And the onboarding is also fantastic. You get an intro to the company, you get a big book about your role. They tell you about the vision and the mission. 

But when they acquire a company with 100 or 1000 people, they don't care 

It’s ridiculous. 

How can companies address these common mistakes? 

Artur: One way is to acquire companies and keep them decentralised. 

Danaher in the US does this. By doing that, you don't kill the entrepreneurial spirit or culture of each company and you don’t lose speed. 

On the other hand, if you’ve made a strategic decision that you’re going to acquire a company because you want a specific asset and you don’t care about the rest, then it’s different. 

If you have 14 companies, you’re 14 boats. You have small boats that are driven by engines, you have sailing boats, bigger ones, smaller ones, that's okay.  

It's okay that each boat has a captain and that they have their own culture. But we need to sail in the same direction.

- Artur Aira

The decentralised approach reminds me of BICO’s strategy… 

Artur: Yes, exactly. I based our strategy on this idea. We acquired companies in a decentralised way. If we wanted to put them together, we would have bought different kinds of companies from the beginning. 

You might say, ‘Hey, but why do we need 14 CEOs and 14 sales managers?’ 

Well, that's the way it is.  

 Of course, you can always have synergies when it comes to costs. Administration, logistics, and purchasing, for example. You can consolidate but be careful. 

Other than increased overhead, what are the other risks of a decentralised approach?  

Artur: It’s important that the leadership team understands and supports the decentralised approach. You need to be clear when it comes to your vision, mission, and business strategy.  

Everyone on the leadership team needs to be on board. 

I like this metaphor. If you have 14 companies, you’re 14 boats. You have small boats that are driven by engines, you have sailing boats, bigger ones, smaller ones, that's okay.  

It's okay that each boat has a captain and their own culture. But we need to sail in the same direction. 

If you can manage that, you will have a much better outcome.

The risk is that you need good leadership in place that understands this. You need to lead by example, and you need to be a good role model to be successful. 

If you just sit behind your desk and try to micromanage 14 companies, it will implode. 

From your Board experience, what are the big strategic mistakes that life-science startups make as they move towards an exit?   

Artur: One common mistake is that startups keep the same people on the Board from the beginning until they have started commercialising. That's fully, totally wrong. It’s a good way to predict failure.

The Board needs to be organic, meaning that when the organisation is growing, the board needs to grow with the organisation. 

It’s indispensable to have a Board that aligns with the company's needs.

-Artur Aira

At the early stage, the composition of the board is different because you need to have certain competencies while the company is developing. But when you enter the commercialisation phase, you need others. 

It’s indispensable to have a Board that aligns with the company's needs. 

The other thing that many startups struggle with is clearly articulating their business idea. I’d say not even 10% know how to do it. One thing that I have learned from the Americans is the elevator pitch. 

In the end, it’s the people that are most important. I often spend a lot of time understanding who is behind an idea. You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don't have the right people, you will fail.  
If you don’t have the best idea in the world, but you have people who are passionate, positive, driven, and result-oriented, you can achieve miracles.  

Final thoughts before you go? 

Artur: I love life science. The way it's developing is exciting — personalised medicine, mRNA drugs, new technology that is accelerating drug development.

We’re going to see quick positive change in the industry.  

I also think that the big pharma business model is dead. I think there are a lot of possibilities for smaller companies to disrupt the industry, which we need. 

If you’re looking to sell or buy a company and you want to execute it successfully, reach out to Artur (he’s done it over 40 times).   

He is looking to take on a few more clients this spring. 

You can find him here: 

LinkedIn: Artur Aira


Something was missing at SLAS…

We’re fresh from visiting SLAS in Boston. There were a ton of cool new lab tools to help automate your lab work from floating well plates to giant liquid handlers that could pass off Decepticons.

But one thing struck me…

There were barely any systems dedicated to 3D cell models.

There were a handful of bioprinters and a few companies mentioned (in the fine print) that their systems could dispense spheroids and organoids.

But new enabling tech to help standardize and automate work with 3D culture was evidently lacking.

Where we saw the most mentions of 3D culture was in the poster section.

It seems there is still a lot of work to be done before these models enter industry on a larger scale…

As a side note, I finally got to try a lobster roll. I don’t think we picked a good spot, so if you’re a seafood aficionado from the Boston area, reply to this email to send me your best recommendations so I can get the full experience.


Exciting research that has advanced 3D cell culture recently:

The authors present a novel microfluidic device for cultivating 3D cell aggregates like spheroids and organoids. The device effectively creates and monitors endothelial networks around various organoids, enhancing their growth, maturation, and function.

The system supports vascularized islet spheroids, demonstrating its viability as an organ-on-chip model. This advancement in tissue engineering addresses challenges in vascularizing organoids-on-chips, offering a promising tool for biological tissue vascularization and organoid perfusion using advanced microfluidics.

A comprehensive review of the advancements in 3D cell culture technology.

The review discusses the evolution of 3D culture methods from simple 2D cultures, emphasizing the enhanced biocompatibility and physiological relevance of 3D models.

It also delves into commercialization trends and the potential future applications of these technologies in various research fields.

The latest advancements in 3D tumour models, including:

  • spheroids

  • organoids

  • tumor-on-a-chip systems

It focuses on how these models replicate the tumour microenvironment (TME), aiding in cancer research and drug development.

It underscores the significance of these biomimetic 3D models in providing more accurate, high-throughput, and ethically favourable alternatives for cancer research.

Cool research in the field of 3D cell culture that you think would benefit the community? Reply to this email to discuss featuring it in our next issue.


Don’t miss out on these upcoming events in the 3D cell culture space:

Advances in Cell-based Screening in Drug Discovery 2024 (Gothenburg, SWE |15-16 May, 2024)

A prominent event hosted by ELRIG UK focusing on the latest innovations in cell-based screening techniques for drug discovery.

This conference gathers industry leaders and experts to discuss advances in high-throughput screening, novel assays, and automation technologies. It's a key platform for exploring new methodologies in cell biology and their application in identifying effective therapeutics.

For more information, visit the event page.

SLAS Europe 2024 (Barcelona, Spain |27-29 May, 2024)

A premier event organized by the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS). This conference is dedicated to the latest in laboratory technology, including automation and screening advancements.

For more information, please visit their event page.

Hosting an event for pioneers in the 3D cell model space? Reply to this email to discuss featuring it in our next issue.