EpiBone, a New York city-based biotech startup, uses stem cells to regrow damaged bones. After getting a PhD from Columbia and working two years at management consultancy McKinsey, Nina Tandon, now 36, returned to school for an MBA to form the company at the forefront of what she calls “biology as design.” 

--As told to Liz Welch

When looking at the range of tissues that could be grown in regenerative medicine, the easiest is something that’s flat, that’s one cell type, and that doesn’t interact with other organs. The skin. Skin has been done since the 1990s. The most difficult? Tissue that’s mechanically and metabolically active, that needs lots of calories, and that interacts with other organs. For example, the heart. Between them is bone, which has a complex shape but a single cell type.

"We’re slow and steady, we’re science nerds, and we are aiming to help humanity."Nina Tandon, CEO and Co-Founder, Epibone

I focused my PhD work on the heart. I was able to coax rat heart cells to develop into beating tissue. So my first aha! moment was seeing how traditional technology could speak the language of cells. My colleague, later my EpiBone co-founder, was doing similar work in a different context: Stem cells going toward bone lineage need a different language spoken to them. My second aha! was that I could help him develop that into a business. After blood, bone is the second-most-transplanted tissue. So those numbers are very compelling. Millions of surgeries, trillions of dollars, and no viable alternative.

I’ve always been interested in the intersection of academia and industry, but academics don’t consider themselves entrepreneurs. When I applied for my MBA, people were like, “What are you doing?” On the application I wrote, “I want to transform myself from a biotechnologist to a biotech leader.”

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We got a grant in 2011 and incorporated in 2013. Then we wanted to raise $700,000 of angel funding, but did a $4 million round instead. I don’t want to get cocky, but I do think science is storytelling. I didn’t tell investors they would get a return. I said, “If you’re interested in WhatsApp, walk away. We’re slow and steady, we’re science nerds, and we are aiming to help humanity.” Of our 66 investors, seven are professors or deans from Columbia. Peter Thiel also was an angel investor, as was a man who cold-called me and within five minutes had invested $250,000.

We’ve already grown a jawbone in a pig, and now we’re replacing cheekbones. This process can potentially help congenital defects, trauma, cleft palates, dental issues, and cancer. If this works, we won’t be on the market for another eight to 10 years because of the regulatory pathways. We hope to start clinical trials within two years.

Biology is becoming a design element, and we’re part of that trend, which is bleeding out of the lab into the wider world. A woman is growing cement bricks with bacteria. Another woman, at MIT, has developed a strain of mushroom that can be used as a natural body suit to assist decomposition inside a coffin. I love what happens when we ask, “What if you start collaborating with nature instead of trying to harness it?”