As a part of my series about “The Future of Healthcare” I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert S. Kellar, Ph.D, a biotechnology innovator focused on improving patients’ quality of life through advanced regenerative medicine technologies. He the Chief Science Officer for Axolotl Biologix and on the faculty in the Center for Bioengineering Innovation (CBI), Biological Sciences and Mechanical Engineering at Northern Arizona University. Kellar has over 18 years of experience developing medical devices, cell-based products, and regenerative medicine and tissue engineered technology. He has 136 scientific abstracts, 31 peer-reviewed publications, and 4 issued US patents.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After receiving my Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, I jumped into a corporate career in the biotechnology and medical device industry. After a decade, I returned to academics to work with students who were pursuing a career in science. It was a big leap of faith, but it was also the biggest turning point in my life because I was helping shape young minds who will change the future of medical research. Now I am fortunate enough to teach university students and still develop emerging medical technologies with companies such as Axolotl Biologix.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My first “real job” in the field was in Southern California in “Biotech Beach”. I went to work for Advanced Tissue Sciences (ATS) after finishing my PhD training. In this company, I worked as a Research Scientist and then a Project Manager, and finally in a business development role. This business development role came about following the company filing for Bankruptcy. This took place on October 11, 2002. I remember the day well, because just a few days later my first daughter was born. On the 11th of October, ATS went from about 225 employees down to 5. I was one of the 5 remaining and the only scientist. My final role at ATS was to find a home for as much of our technology as possible and then to liquidate all remaining assets. The role was quite an experience as a young scientist in my late 20’s. I remember the next 6 months very well. My learning curve was huge…being a brand new father, and then having to figure out how to find a home for as much of the technology as possible. It was this period of time in my early career that solidified my understanding of how important careful business management could be for the future of a company; only having really cool technology wasn’t enough. Following this experience, I went to work for a well-established medical device company, W.L. Gore & Associates where I was able to learn first-hand how to wisely and responsibly run a business. Having these two “control groups” in my career has been life shaping. I’m forever grateful for both opportunities and the learning that took place.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
At Axolotl Biologix, we have regenerative membranes and fluid products that are currently being used to treat patients where repair and regeneration is needed. Additionally, as the CSO at Axolotl Biologix, I am leading my team to develop next-generation technologies that will allow us to create biomimetic skin scaffoldings, replacement blood vessels and even heart patches that will be a perfect match for the patient. In the future, we plan to enhance our regenerative fluid with the addition of tropoelastin, a water-soluble version of elastin which can help to signal cells to promote repair and regeneration and can be insolubilized into the extracellular matrix to offer a stretchy characteristic to the tissue. This is important because as the body ages, it quits making elastin which is one of the reasons why we have wrinkles in aging skin, cardiovascular diseases, and even sports injuries. Our future solutions will help to return elasticity to damaged tissue, providing a better patient outcome.
How do you think this will change the world?
With these breakthroughs from Axolotl Biologix, we can continue to provide physicians new treatments to help promote wound healing, facilitate coverage and healing of burns and much more. We anticipate that with time, our breakthrough technologies will afford us the ability to fabricate a long list of biomimetic replacement tissues and potentially whole organs.
The unfortunate side of creating novel biotechnology is that the public doesn’t realize just how incredible these discoveries are on their own. The general public starts to think it is common and even simple to heal complex wounds, for example, which creates unrealistic expectations on the efficacy of a product that is new to the market.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
Shortly following graduate school, I went to work for a biotech company in La Jolla, CA. At Advanced Tissue Sciences, we were developing early tissue engineering and regenerative medicine technologies to be used in wound care. One of our products was a cell-based therapy product (Dermagraft) that still is helping patients today. In my product development work with Dermagraft and the living human fibroblasts that we cultured to create the product, I began to better understand the power of the biology within a cell. It was this early point in my career that launched my fascination on how to leverage cellular biology to create therapeutic solutions for patients.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Widespread adoption will slowly come with more clinical data and stories of how our regenerative medicine technologies are helping patients. We are beginning to gain momentum and with follow-on FDA submissions, a broader adoption will be possible for a specific label indication.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) If you don’t fail in life, you may not be trying hard enough.
2) It’s not all about me, even though the world tells you so.
3) Money really won’t bring me happiness, investing in people will.
4) There isn’t just one pathway for me, life will provide many crossroads and changes.
5) There is much more to life than my career, don’t neglect your spiritual, emotional, and physical health…without those there is no life.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
As a scientist, researcher and university educator I know how quickly the biotech industry changes, so I think it is imperative to be constantly learning. New ideas and discoveries are made every day, so you need to keep an open mind to facilitate forward momentum. I am fortunate to work with incredibly talented young students whose questions open up new perspectives and spark creative solutions every day.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
If I had a million dollars to invest, I would put it all into Axolotl Biologix to expand our team and the human talent to help realize our product pipeline of life changing technologies and products. I am immensely proud of how much we have achieved and I have full confidence that our innovations will continue to have an incredible impact as they are introduced to the market. This impact will affect people in our community, patients in the US and globally, and the biotech industry as a whole.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Axolotl Biologix develops regenerative medicine technologies to provide patients with additional options that may help them avoid the costs, discomfort and downtime associated with surgery and improve their quality of life. Our regenerative medicine products do not contain stem cells in their final product form; instead they contain all the nutrients needed to enable the body’s own cells and tissues to repair and regenerate. For patients who cannot risk surgery an injectable product like Axolotl Shot™ can be life changing.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.