Danny Cabrera, CEO of BioBots | JOB HACKS 

Talking about 3D printing and its possibilities for colonizing Mars.

Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.

Name: Danny Cabrera

Original Hometown: Havana, Cuba

Job: CEO of BioBots, a company that makes 3D printers

How did you get your start?

When we started, I was an undergrad at Penn studying computer science and biology. Our other co-founder, Ricardo, was working with a post-doc who was really savvy with 3D printers, concentrating on 3D for sugar. If we can print sugar, we can print sugar networks and throw cells on it, they’d eat the sugar and create something that’s more like a blood vessel. Ricardo then had the idea to make them more modular — instead of using them for sugar or plastic, to focus on printing out cells. From the get go, that was the idea: How do you use cells as building blocks instead of polymers? What does this technology actually mean? Your body is 3D, cells interact in a 3D space, which is more realistic than stuff you do in a dish in a lab. Our vision is to take biology into the third dimension. We submitted it to a competition and won some prize money.

Did that money give you what you needed to launch the business?

The prize was less than we had thought. I had just gotten into grad school at Penn for my Ph.D., so we had that summer to work on it and some money to play around with. We mapped out who would be clients, who could actually pay for this stuff. We reached out to researchers, academics; we sat them down for a beer and then took them to show them what we had. We were working on building miniature stomachs. We did a couple deals like that, but then we had no idea what to do. I thought, ‘We can build a business here,’ but neither of us had a business background or any idea what we were doing, and we needed more cash behind it. So I started running around trying to figure out who would give us money and who would be a part of this. We applied for every start up accelerator you could imagine.

After you were able to get funds, was it smooth sailing?

From the beginning, none of the decisions were obvious. There was a start up accelerator in Philadelphia that decided to fund us, give us lab and office space and lawyers. That’s when we started thinking of it as a business. I remember coming up with this long list of 300 people working in this space. I went and Googled around, getting their email addresses, and spent a solid two days calling all of them. From 300 names, I got maybe three to pick up and I left 300 voicemails. That was super discouraging – I remember thinking, ‘Shit, I’m definitely doing something wrong here.’

How were you able to figure out a better approach to get clients and interest?

Then I tried emailing everyone – I had to consider, ‘How do we craft an email?’ It was really short. The subject line was something like Invitation to 3D Bio printing, with a video of our device printing out an ear. From that, I got around a hundred calls, and a lot of those calls converted to sales. It really got our name out there to people who were at the top of the line in this space. More than anything, we found that people wanted to collaborate with us. It wasn’t that we had all these features; it was we wanted to connect people and act as a hub where all the bioprinting knowledge was funneling from one research group to us to another. There wasn’t really a community for it at the time.

What are you most excited about for the future?

In the future, the thing that gets me excited is how do we use biology — it’s really the final frontier. We think space exploration is, but I really think biology is. We’ve been going out to space for a long time, but it hasn’t been so long that we’ve had microscopes and understood what’s happening within us, trying to understand what that means. What gets me excited is the kinds of things people are building with our devices.

What kinds of things do you mean? Where do you see this going?

The ultimate goal is to use biology to engineer living organisms. Eventually we see these tissues being implantable — I tear my meniscus and bioprint a new one. But the main implications are in drug discovery. Instead of testing drugs on animals, to use bioprinted tissues to know whether a drug will be toxic to humans. It will be more accurate that way and less cruel to animals. One interesting thing for the future is also thinking about this in space. It would help give us tools to colonize other planets — if someone is on Mars and gets injured, you can’t bring them back to Earth quickly for medical attention, but what if they had a bioprinter?

What advice would you give for others trying to start their own companies?

Being a founder for a start up is very up-and-down. You have moments where a week or two has gone by, none of the calls you made were returned, and you can’t get to the next level you want to. There are really discouraging moments, so you need to be able to stick it through and stick it out. You need to be optimistic. If I thought about everything that could go wrong, I would be immobilized. Even the most ridiculous stuff that seems like it won’t work — sometimes it does. You really need that optimism. And you need to remember the importance of team. It’s easy to read about the CEO and think it’s one person making it happen, but I wouldn’t be able to do any of the things I’m doing without our awesome team. Our other founder Ricardo is just as important to the success, but part of a start up is you need to divvy up roles. For founders, not all the founders can be CEOs — it’s important for people to figure out where they fit in.