Ceramics and connectivity

Materials research is advancing, sometimes with unexpected results. Professor Håkan Engqvist has started several companies that can contribute with small revolutions in different fields. Now he is calling for more funding and expertise in the innovation system.

HÅKAN ENGQVIST WAS instrumental in the start-up of Ångström Material Academy (ÅMA) at Uppsala University’s UU innovation. The goal was to enable a stronger collaboration – in true “MIT spirit” – between the university and the Swedish research community. Today, he runs his own research department in materials science.

In recent years, Håkan Engqvist has increasingly focused on how ceramic materials can be used in the human body.

– Doctors and dentists use many different types of materials, the most common being plastics and metals. But ceramics have been a promising material for a long time – especially in dentistry, where function and aesthetics interact. After all, our teeth are ceramic from the beginning. Ceramics can be made biocompatible and even antibacterial, which are very beneficial properties as we see an increasing demand for safe materials, without the risk of secondary infections.

Tailored skull

The company Psilox has developed a toothpaste for sensitive gums, but it is perhaps OssDsign that has attracted the most attention. OssDsign 3D prints ceramic implants for patients who have suffered severe head injuries or defects. First, a CT 3D X-ray is performed, and the information is sent to CAD engineers who produce a unique implant. The product is then printed, sterilized and packaged, and sent to the hospital before surgery. Håkan sees a bright future for 3D-printed implants in different parts of the body but emphasizes that it is always a trade-off.

– You can theoretically print an artificial leg – but is it better, simpler, and more cost-effective? It is not at all obvious that it will be better to print everything. For head injuries, however, this process is excellent.

Invigorating bone glue and cast intoxication

At the moment, Håkan Engqvist and a group of researchers are working on a new type of bone glue.

– It is very difficult to patch an elbow with screws and threads, but there are no adhesives that are safe, effective, and approved. We use calcium phosphate and phosphoserine – a common ingredient in sports drinks. It is still a long way to approval, but I think we have a very good product here.

A completely different innovation that has been incorporated is called Emplicure, which can be seen as an insurance against drug abuse. The need for such a product stems from the opioid crisis in the United States.

– It is a big problem that addicts quite easily can extract opioids from many types of drugs. There are instructional videos online on how to smoke, chew, make tea, and everything else imaginable. There can be quite a lot of active substances in a patch that is made to last for 72 hours, so they must become safer to use.

The solution was found in cement.

– We cast a type of concrete for the drug. Then we put the drug in small grains of sand that we pour into the product. This makes it hard to crush them to quickly get the effect of the drug.

Commercial balancing act

Håkan Engqvist has long worked in different parts of the innovation system in Uppsala and sees how the various parts of it constantly interplay to move forward.

– I get energized when there is a need to fill and a goal to work towards – regardless of whether it is at a societal level or in communication. Within my field, it often coincides. And when you get a good team together, you can work quickly.

Is there still skepticism around commercializing research?

– Partially. And one must beware of conflicts of interest. On the other hand, I am an engineer – I need a denominator to find the driving force in the work I do. He rather believes that entrepreneurship must be implemented in academia more naturally.

– Many people struggle with their career paths within the academy, but for some reason, entrepreneurship is not part of that chain. For example, I’m incredibly proud of OssDsign and what we do for our patients, but it gives me no advantage in academia. I believe that there also needs to be incentives academically, for example in the form of merit, if you have an entrepreneurial background. Otherwise, there is a risk of hindering the utilization part of the research.

What is your view on the future of life science in Uppsala? What more is needed for the ecosystem to thrive?

– If you want to start more new companies, it is obvious that more access to people is needed. Finding the right people and putting together a commercial team is still quite difficult.

Are there issues with funding another threshold?

– Yes, Sweden is still a bit too small-scale in terms of funding. It is easy to start up, with the help of, for example,  Almi, the government’s business development agency. If you have enough ambition, there are good opportunities to get started. But then you have to hire and develop – and in life science, it usually takes a long time before you become profitable. There is too little money in the system. In other words, ideas and infrastructure are not the problems, but there is a lack of both the right people and money. With an increased influx of skills, money follows – and the other way around.

What future development do you see in this sector?

– Individualization and monitoring are important concepts. A modern car is hugely connected, and in the future, our bodies will be connected as well. It is obviously a good thing if an implant can communicate, since then you will immediately know if there is an inflammation or infection in progress. And I think that development is going to start in the mouth. With artificial teeth, you can implement sensors that enable you to build exciting new applications using the cloud and big data.

What kind of solutions are we talking about?

– As an indicator of how good the environment is, you could measure the pH value with an implant and send a signal to an app. We could have sensors in our mouths to analyze food intake. The hip joint can warn you if you have sat for too long, or signal if you have gained a lot of weight. I think we have all the knowhow to achieve this, but it requires interdisciplinary expertise. I know my narrow field, but it must be connected to a systemized thinking. I think that Sweden and Uppsala could be great at this. With funding and skills, the stars will align for someone.

Is the preventive approach difficult to apply to the pharmaceutical industry?

– In Germany, a lot is invested in these issues. But right now, many companies benefit from continuing as they do today. We must jointly create good cases that can be scaled up. Does the life science system want to be involved in preventing diabetes or should we just continue to treat it? The whole community benefits from preventive care, and we will see new winners in the future. But it has to start somewhere.

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"With an increased influx of skills, money follows – and the other way around."

OssDsign 3D prints custom ceramic implants.