When Ali Mousavi and Arash Helmi joined the Startup Visa program sponsored by Nova Scotia venture capital Crown corporation Innovacorp, it was not from their home country of Iran, but thanks to a South Korean startup competition.
Mousavi and Helmi are the co-founders of Magic Organ Cloner, or MOC Biotechnologies. In 2019, they were in Korea to compete in the BIXPO innovation conference’s invention fair, where they placed second.
Their technology for 3D printing medical implants and other items compatible with human biology -- “bioprinting” -- had already attracted enough attention that Innovacorp exec Ding Fan travelled from elsewhere in Korea to meet them.
“It was interesting that Ding was in Korea at the same time, and she gets on the train for three hours, and comes to the competition and sees all the devices there directly,” said Mousavi in an interview. “After she saw our system, she was quite excited. And we got the silver medal.”
Mousavi and Helmi are both serial entrepreneurs. In Iran, Helmi ran a home appliance manufacturer that built about 300,000 units a year. Mousavi worked as a scientific advisor to Helmi’s company before striking out on his own with a 3D printing startup. He also holds a PhD in mechatronics, robotics and automation engineering, and was an assistant professor at Islamic Azad University.
The duo started work on MOC in 2017 after Mousavi noticed a growing and largely untapped market for bioprinting. The process, for example, can be used to create materials suitable for testing cosmetics products -- a process now carried out on live animals in a shrinking number of jurisdictions as many governments move to ban the practice.
With a winning streak at startup competitions in Toronto, Dubai and most recently, Istanbul, Helmi and Mousavi decided to move their new company out of Iran because they had concluded that the Middle Eastern market for medtech products was too small to support their growth plans.
They chose Halifax for their new home, Mousavi said, because his visits to other regional startup hubs have convinced him that Nova Scotia is likely to emerge as a major, international player in biotech and medtech -- thanks in large part to the province’s unusually high density of research universities and ready supply of highly qualified recent graduates.
After arriving in Halifax in the spring, Mousavi and Helmi are working on securing a new, wide-ranging set of patents for their technology. A previous set became outdated after they made several tweaks to their bioprinter design.
They have also been accepted into Dalhousie-based startup accelerator CDL Atlantic, which Mousavi said the team’s mentors have been encouraging them to use as an opportunity to ensure their technology is fully developed and patented before they commercialize it.
“Lidija Marusic is a genius,” said Mousavi. “She has a PhD in bioscience, and she’s our advisor at Innovacorp. And she told us, ‘Don’t be in a rush to be in the market.’ Right now we are working on the market segmentation and Arash [Helmi] is working on collaboration [with potential users of the technology].”
Their plan, now, is to enter the market when they finish CDL in the spring. In the meantime, Helmi said he is in talks with several internationally recognized American hospitals.
The first market Mousavi and Helmi target will be for medical implants that decompose within the body -- such as bone screws -- thus eliminating the need for follow-up surgeries to remove them.
When they take the implant technology to market, they plan to offer customers two choices: buying the bioprinted medical devices directly, and for organizations that need larger volumes of product, buying a bioprinter and software.
Eventually, as bioprinting technology becomes more advanced, Mousavi said he expects MOC will be capable of 3D printing human organs.
“But that’s far in the future,” he warned. “It’s important to start now because this will take time.”
So far, Mousavi and Helmi have not raised capital. Instead, they have self-funded their work with winnings from their previous companies.
“I think that when we finish CDL... That's the time that we can pitch it for angels or venture capitalists," he said. “Our style should be a Canadian style for the pitching, for presenting to investors. Each country has its own culture of their ecosystem and their investments.”