Northwell readies move into 3D markets

Tom Thornton, the former Cleveland Clinic exec who heads Northwell's commercialization effort.

With 3D printing rapidly redefining what’s medically feasible, the Northwell Health system is rushing to study the commercial possibilities.

Not only are scientists at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research – the health system’s R&D arm – riding the next wave of 3D printing’s medical applications, but Northwell itself is looking at ways to take the emerging science to market.

Specifically, Northwell Ventures, the system’s commercialization office, is considering two 3D-printing verticals, according to Tom Thornton, a Northwell senior VP and executive director of the system’s venture effort.

One is focused purely on clinical applications, a second in which Northwell becomes a “service center,” producing 3D-printed body parts and other tools for clinicians both in and out of the system.

“We see a lot of potential in these two realms,” Thornton told Innovate LI. “There’s an awful lot of excitement in some of the orthopedic areas and in others that could use 3D printing to manufacture highly specialized, personalized products for clinical applications.

“We’d also like to develop this as an organization that not only services our clinicians, but perhaps, over time, becomes a business of some sort,” he added. “That’s a specific interest we’re investigating.”


Eric Feinstein

Leading that probe is Eric Feinstein, a veteran venture capitalist who joined the Northwell Ventures team several years ago, when it went by North Shore Ventures under the North Shore-LIJ Health System flag.

Feinstein is not related to Leonard Feinstein, the Bed Bath & Beyond cofounder for whom the institute is named. But he does have a personal history with healthcare – he comes from a family of surgeons – and an intimate familiarity with the business of medicine, including the enormous healthcare potential of 3D printing.

Before joining Northwell, Feinstein held several strategy-consulting and venture-capitalization positions in the Boston area. They included a stint with Ampersand Ventures, where he led a large investment into Rhode Island-based Biomedical Structures, a spinoff from RI’s former textile-manufacturing industry that, at the time, was making cutting-edge forays into artificial organics.

The work done at Biomedical Structures spoke to his “passion” for the business side of healthcare, Feinstein noted, and gave the venture capitalist a clearer idea of how to focus his career.

“I could actually change peoples’ lives,” Feinstein said. “I could help initiate technologies that, in five years, could save a patient’s life.”

That money-meets-medicine focus made him a good fit for the then-North Shore operation and makes him the ideal person to lead Northwell Ventures’ evaluation of potential 3D-printing markets, according to Thornton.

“We always want to bring in individuals on the investment side who have a demonstrated background with and understanding of these technologies,” said Thornton, who left the Cleveland Clinic in 2013 to head North Shore-LIJ’s commercialization efforts.

“The ability to look at some pretty raw science and to work with researchers on a developmental strategy and on ways we can commercialize these opportunities is critical,” he added. “It takes a different mindset. Clearly, Eric had that background.”

No matter how clever the venture strategists, however, commercialization can’t happen without groundbreaking science. And if Feinstein Institute researchers didn’t actually invent the notion of using 3D-printing technologies to produce bionic limbs, synthetic bones and even living organs, they’re certainly pushing the envelope.

Two Feinstein Institute scientists are using a desktop 3D printer donated by Brooklyn-based MakerBot to produce a wide range of artificial organics and other medical devices, including dental jigs – a sort of drill guide for dental surgeons – that are already available for professional use.

The work by Daniel Grande, the Feinstein Institute’s director of orthopedic research, and Todd Goldstein, a PhD candidate at the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, is also attracting attention. Already, the pair have created functioning trachea – cartilage-ringed membranes that carry air to and from the lungs – that have been successfully implanted into rabbits.

“We’re trying to work with several different clinicians to determine the real applications 3D printing actually has in the clinical realm,” Thornton noted. “Only engagement with many clinicians will help us answer that question.”

Combining organic plastic frames that harmlessly biodegrade inside living hosts with “bio-ink,” a gelatinous goo comprised partially of living cells, scientists like Grande and Goldstein are on the brink of producing on-demand, living organs for immediate implantation.

The economic potential, needless to say, is staggering. And that means professional-level vetting by someone like Feinstein, who’s made a career bridging the gap between science and business.

“The technology of 3D printing hasn’t quite caught up with large-scale manufacturing processes yet, but it has potentially major applications in niche industries and markets, including the medical space,” Feinstein said. “The question, from our standpoint, is ‘is this scalable?’

“There are 20 different markets we could potentially enter,” Feinstein added. “But is this something we can wrap a real business around?”