Fedor Aptakarev never set out to be 3D printing’s Tony Stark. When he started out, ten years ago, it was music – not medicine – that enjoyed the fruits of his high-tech labors.
Aptakarev was part of an arts community in Moscow, Russia’s sprawling capital, and began using 3D tools to power gigs, stage shows and stadium events. 3D, back then, was a rare luxury. Popular 3D printing was a pipe dream.
Now, speaking from a desk at the city’s Neuronspace tech hub – just minutes’ from the Kremlin by foot – the entrepreneur, and keen skateboarder, has built one of the sector’s most intriguing firms, in a city that’s fast-becoming known for its tech prowess.
“It’s hard to do this,” he says, moving to block the cacophony of rush-hour traffic from his window. “No-one told us when we were starting out. But I think it’s worth it.”
Investors, and medical professionals, agree. ZDRAVPRINT – ‘Healthprint’ in English – has pioneered the production of 3D-printed, bespoke casts for broken wrists, an idea first mooted by Singapore-born designer Jake Evill, in 2013.
From a half-whispered conversation over lunch two years back, ZDRAVPRINT is now being sold in hospitals in Russia’s fifth-largest city, in an industry – medicine – whose adoption of cutting-edge technology can, at times, come at a glacial pace.
For Aptakarev, the reasons behind his company were formed at an early age, at Moscow’s skate parks.
From age nine Fedor Aptakarev would tear up and down Moscow’s streets on his beloved skateboard. The city was somewhat ill-equipped to deal with a new generation of extreme sports aficionados. Not every ride went to plan.
“I’m almost 33 and this summer season is the first I didn’t really skate a lot,” says Aptakarev. “It’s because I’m having problems with my feet.” Like so many men and women worldwide, Aptakarev had developed problems with his insole.
The likeliest person to get him back on the halfpipe, it seems, is himself.
3D printing, as a concept, has existed since 1984, when Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corporation developed a prototype printer based on stereolithography. Yet 3D printing as a viable commercial product has only become a reality in the past five years, led by heavy industry and plummeting prices of printers.
Now the technology is being used to create anything from cars to guns and plenty besides. But one of the most fascinating industries to have jumped on the 3D printing bandwagon is medicine – and the possibilities have seemed, at times, endless.
Pelvic implants have been printed in England; a motorist’s face has been reconstructed using 3D-printed parts in Wales and even organs are beginning to be printed across the world.
According to a research report by IndustryARC, the global value of healthcare-related 3D printing was $487 million in 2014, in a market slated to grow by 18.3% per year.
Pieter Strikwerda is founder of online portal 3Dprinting.com. He thinks that printing medicine is the most exciting medical area into which 3D printing is moving.
“The prospect of tailor-made drugs that are customized to an individual’s needs has moved a step closer with the recent approval of a 3D-printed drug by the FDA,” he says.
But it was another kind of tailor that excited Aptakarev. In March 2013 burlesque performer Dita Von Teese stepped out at a New York event wearing a fully-articulated 3D dress, designed by Michael Schmidt and and modeled by architect Francis Bitonti.
The dress’ cortex weave, captured for a Russian news segment, caught Aptakarev’s eye. “This is great,” he told colleagues. “Let’s do it.”
He wasn’t the only one. Later that year Evill’s cortex cast appeared, winning plaudits from designers and technocrats alike. 2.4 of every 100 people will fracture a bone each year. Not only was Evill’s cast aesthetically appealing, thought Aptakarev – it could make millions too.
By late 2013 Moscow’s reputation as a tech hub was growing. Now, with rafts of multinationals flocking to Russia for dev centres, and with industries such as gaming and heavy industry excelling, “Russia’s Silicon Valley” is blossoming on the global stage.
3D printing, too, has flourished in the capital. In addition to ZDRAVPRINT, 3D Bioprinting Solutions has been impressing Strikwerda and co. “About a year ago they launched the first Russian bioprinter,” he says, “and a few months ago they printed a thyroid gland to transplant onto living rats.”
Aptakarev got his chance to shine at Yandex’s accelerator camp, founding the company soon after. He then worked with orthopedic surgeons and doctors to bring “critical value” to the casts.
Production time was key: “The product is not only the piece of plastic – it’s the whole production process.
“We do this technology that has its past in the 1990s,” he adds. “Using that old technology it still takes a couple of weeks, and with metal it takes months.” At first, ZDRAVPRINT’s own process took 12-18 hours to create one cast. Now, though, they have whittled it down to just 40 minutes.
“This is what made the breakthrough, because before we managed to drop the production time this much, clinical application was a big problem,” he says.
In medical technology, though, it’s not only the tech that takes time. “If you don’t work in the medical profession you can’t overestimate the conservative mood,” says Aptakarev, who for the company’s first six-to-eight months worked with dozens of doctors in different fields.
At first the company’s printing procedure was tough to learn, and medical professionals were reluctant to add another skill to their already-busy schedules.
However, with a more streamlined process, and production time, honed, ZDRAVPRINT has finally begun to gain real traction in the market. In February 2015 it attracted a $100,000 investment from US VC Maxfield Capital.
With that money Aptakarev began selling. Two months ago the Nizhny Novgorod Institute of Trauma and Orthopedics – a large institution in Russia’s fifth-biggest city, in which over 8,000 procedures are performed each year, invited ZDRAVPRINT to take part in a research project on individualized bone graft treatments.
Finally, Aptakarev can see profit ahead. He is currently looking for a second seed round investment.
“We need investments to expand from the wrist to other parts of the human body,” he says, “and we need to invest some resources into our own sales force, because we want to sell technology, not individual devices. Since 3D printing in the medical field is so young, we cannot plan that we will be earning a lot from sales technology.”
That money, too, will go into an expansion beyond the former USSR. “We have lots of orders from Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Latvia,” he says. “But that’s almost considered domestic.”
Now the company only makes wrist casts. Next up, says Aptakarev, are back braces – and insoles: “If we sell for €50 per piece, and a quality pair of insoles is €180, then a back brace is thousands of euros.”
Getting back on that skateboard, too, will be priceless.