Swedish born, Hokie raised: Gatenholm and Cellink awarded Entrepreneur of the Year
January 9, 2020
“We had the vision to build an industry,” explained Erik Gatenholm. “It’s not often that we are given that opportunity, one where we see a clear need and have the ability to fulfill it.”
Gatenholm’s vision led him to co-found Cellink, the leading 3D bioprinter provider and the world’s first bioink company. The startup, along with Gatenholm and its other co-founders, was recently awarded the prestigious Entrepreneur of the Year in Sweden, and Erik himself was recently placed on the Forbes 30 under 30 as well as MIT Technology Review’s 35 under 35.
According to Företagarna, the trade organization that oversees the award, the criteria to win are, among other things, for a company to show creativity and innovation, to be leaders and role models, and to show profitability and growth.
“This year's winner is a pure role model that has gone beyond what is possible,” read a statement released by Företagarna. “An innovation company responsible for both hardware and consumables to reconstruct what was previously only possible to request from higher powers. These entrepreneurs leave the jury speechless – and we're sure this is just the beginning for the company that prints body parts!”
Much like its co-founder and CEO, Cellink came about in the U.S. but was born in Sweden. That is also where Gatenholm was first introduced to biological 3D printing. “I was so fascinated by the process that I went out and bought my own 3D printer,” he said.
Exploring the industry further, Gatenholm quickly realized that, while the bioprinters were being manufactured, there was no one dedicated to producing bioinks, the living cell material that is used to produce artificial live tissue in 3D printing technology. Most consumers of the printers – academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies – were left to mix their own bioinks in-house.
It was then that, again much like its co-founder, Cellink came of age in Blacksburg. Recognizing there was a gap in the marketplace, Gatenholm acquired a biomaterial that his father, Paul Gatenholm, a biomaterials professor with the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, had been working on for several years.
“I purchased the patent for a material my father had been working on that had scientific viability but was in its early commercial stages,” explained Gatenholm. “I went all in.”
And then some. Cellink became the world’s first bioink company, commercializing the first universal bioink. Within 10 months of its founding, the company was listed publicly on the Nasdaq. As Cellink’s bioink business was growing, Gatenholm attempted to partner with bioprinter manufacturers to no avail due, in part, to the startup’s small size. That’s when Gatenholm decided that Cellink would “disrupt the field out of necessity.”
“Some companies were selling their systems for over $200,000,” he explained. “For academic institutions and hospitals, this is prohibitively expensive.
“So, we began selling the printing systems for around $5,000-a-piece.”
Part of what gave Gatenholm the confidence to embark upon an entrepreneurial career was the guidance he received as a management student while at Virginia Tech.
“I love sales. I love creating something that can build value,” he explained. “Richard Daugherty, former director of the Business Technology Center, once said to me, ‘Erik, you’re a brilliant salesperson and marketeer – don’t be ashamed of that.’ I embraced that comment.”
Three short years after its formation, today Cellink employs nearly 200 people in offices located across three continents, including an office at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. Its printers and bioinks are used at hundreds of laboratories, corporations, and institutions throughout the world, including Harvard University, Merck, Toyota, and the U.S. Army.
“People and organizations that couldn’t afford the technology before now can,” said Gatenholm. “I want to be a global leader in cell culture technology. I want the company to be 10,000-people strong in a few years.”
According to Gatenholm, what separates Cellink from other businesses in the field – other than cutting edge technology – is their focus on customer service. “One of my management instructors, Margaret Deck, was adamant about the importance of customer service,” he said. “Most biotech companies completely neglect customer care. I wanted to change that.”
Cellink prides itself on its user-friendly products, and the company has built a vast user base that has embraced the technology and will work with one another to solve problems, answer questions, or simply show off creations. The company also offers training programs, and their site is replete with tools to solve user challenges or enhance skills.
“One of the most important things that I have learned – say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ You would not believe how far that will get you in life,” he continued. “It is something you learn only by going to school in the South.”
It has been a whirlwind few years for Cellink and its co-founder. Along with the aforementioned honors, Gatenholm has also received the esteemed Prince Daniel of Sweden Fellowship, among numerous other honors. For the 30-year-old Gatenholm, what else is there to do?
“I want to keep building great technology and continuing to develop myself,” he said. “This is the greatest learning experience of my life.
“I’m not done yet – this business is just getting started.”
– Written by Jeremy Norman