The following article is part of Chase’s “Game Changers” series, which focuses on high-impact businesses and the people who lead them. The article profiles Nina Tandon, CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, the world's first company devoted to growing living human bones for skeletal reconstruction. EpiBone is a client of J.P. Morgan's Life Sciences group within Chase Commercial Banking.
Nina Tandon is a woman with a mission. A rare combination of a research scientist with a PhD and master's degree in business administration, Tandon leads EpiBone, a startup biotech company that's boldly developing the means to grow made-to-order bone tissue to help wounded warriors and patients needing bone grafts.
Tandon's varied background is essential to her success as a trailblazer in an industry where she needs to be equally adept at explaining both the technical aspects of getting bone to grow from stem cells removed from abdominal fat—which she describes in a TED Talk that has more than a million views—and handling startup issues, such as fundraising and small business management.
“After blood, bone is the most transplanted human tissue," Tandon says. “Every person we know probably has had musculoskeletal or dental surgery that required an implant of some kind. By the time we go through our lives, 95 percent of us will have parts we weren't born with."
Right now, graft materials are either harvested from your own body or a cadaver, or they are made from inorganic materials like metal and plastic. These options can have complications that range from the pain and stress of additional surgeries to rejection and lack of long-term integration. EpiBone's value-add is that it can grow the patient's own bone in a laboratory, which can later be transplanted into patients without the need for additional surgeries or complications commonly associated with current treatments.
EpiBone, which is based in Brooklyn, New York, was founded in 2013 and now has 20 employees. They are planning to begin clinical trials of their bone product next year.
The 38-year-old New York native's path to becoming the CEO of a biotech startup has hardly been traditional. She studied electrical engineering as an undergrad at The Cooper Union, earned a master's degree in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, after working as a consultant at McKinsey, returned to school again, this time to Columbia University to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering and an Executive MBA.
Tandon met EpiBone's chief scientific officer and co-founder, Sarindr “Ik" Bhumiratana, while both were in the same PhD program at Columbia University. She was experimenting with heart tissue, and Bhumiratana was growing bone.
Today Bhumiratana's research forms the scientific foundation for their company. Tandon leads the business side, pouring her passion into spreading the word about their company's expansive health-enhancing goals.
As with any startup, fundraising is always a challenge. In addition to foundational support, EpiBone has benefitted from multiple Small Business Innovation Research grants, a federal government program that also helped launch such tech giants as Google. In total, Tandon has raised $11 million in funding from all sources.
As the business grew, Tandon turned to J.P. Morgan for help with her company's banking and treasury needs. The assistance she received ranged from streamlining the company's accounts for receipt of investor funds to introducing her to other entrepreneurs and investors in the community as well as at J.P. Morgan's highly regarded Healthcare Conference, which is held annually in San Francisco.
"We became J.P. Morgan clients during our second round of funding," Tandon recalls. "Making sure that we had a safe, secure mechanism to take those dollars in was very important, especially since international investors need that extra security in place."
She added that she received invaluable advice from Susan Crinnion, EpiBone's dedicated banker and an executive director in J.P. Morgan's specialized Life Sciences team with the Commercial Banking group. "When you're a pre-revenue company, being able to think about creative ways to finance capital expenditures is of the utmost importance," Tandon says. Attendance at the invitation-only J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference also was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs and learn what messages people were sharing, she says.
Asked about the potential uses for EpiBone's products, Tandon is quick to focus on the wounded warriors who return from the battlefield needing facial reconstruction.
“Cranial reconstruction is an ideal starting point for our technology because of the importance in anatomical shape," she says, "The successful use of our product in cranial indications can potentially open up many new doors for other applications."
EpiBone's product is created in a three-step process. First, the patient is given a CT scan to accurately map the defect area. At the same time, a sample of fat is harvested from the patient's abdominal area. A scaffold is then milled and placed in an incubator called a bioreactor. The scaffold is infused with the patient's cells, which are gently encouraged to become bone cells, through a process called differentiation. The new bone cells grow into a personalized bone graft ready for implantation.
The product still must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, as well as demonstrate safety and efficacy in the requisite clinical trials. However, based on the current body of work EpiBone has amassed, Tandon is confident that EpiBone will achieve all the necessary approvals to be on the market in the coming years.
But the scientist soon gives way to the passionate businesswoman. “Medical science has made great strides in keeping people alive, but as for restoration of people's form, function and quality of life, we still have a long way to go," she says.
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