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The B.C. engineer behind 3D-printed human tissues

Competitive spirit has driven engineer-turned-entrepreneur Tamer Mohamed’s success with Aspect Biosystems
Aspect Biosystems CEO Tamer Mohamed says applying engineering to biology felt like a natural extension of engineering | Chung Chow

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue of BIV Magazine.

As a kid, it was never Tamer Mohamed’s grades that irked his parents come report-card time.

It was the comments from his physical education teachers: “‘He’s just overly competitive to the point of getting insane and being mad when [he doesn’t] win,’” recalls the CEO and co-founder of Aspect Biosystems Ltd., whose company is best known for its 3D-printed human tissue technology.

Those report cards make Mohamed chuckle now, but he admits his childhood competitive streak hasn’t eased off.

“I’ve had to tone it down a bit,” the Vancouver-born scientist says, adding he’s since learned to use it in a more productive way, although his passion for soccer hasn’t diminished.

“That obviously has to be channelled in the right way.”

A few other of his childhood habits may have also pushed his parents’ buttons but, in retrospect, portended to his career leading a B.C. company that sits at the intersection between technology and biology.

“I would often be the one who breaks things apart, whether that was a computer, or toys or even game consoles, and try to put things back together,” says Mohamed, now the father of a daughter just shy of two years old.

“I also really took a lot of pleasure in building teams, so I was always involved in trying to build a recreational team or a competitive soccer team. I really liked to take that ownership.”

Aspect Biosystems specializes in developing complex tissues better suited for drug testing than cells in a Petri dish.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) spinoff has created a 3D bio-printing platform known as microfluidic 3D bioprinting platform, which enables the rapid creation of functional living tissues.

In 2018, it nabbed $1 million in repayable funding from Genome BC’s Industry Innovation program, aimed at boosting companies in the early stages of commercialization.

The year before, it partnered with U.S. medical-device and pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to produce meniscus tissue for knees. 

Aspect Biosystems generates revenue from selling its bio-printers to researchers, and selling human tissue products.

It’s also selling rights to the tissues that those researchers develop, providing future revenue streams on any products that become commercialized.

The market remains aggressive in the early stages of commercialization, so Mohamed’s competitive side has been put to use in the corporate world as well.

“Competition doesn’t mean you’re trying to obsess about what others are doing. You’re aware but you want to compete against yourself,” he says.

“Especially in an industry like ours, at the end of the day, we are in a race to help people. I want to win that race. I want that to be Aspect. But if, for whatever reason, we can’t win a part of the race … I would love for somebody else to get patients and help. That’s the unique part of our industry: we’re not just trying to do well for ourselves, we’re also trying to do good in the world.”

His eventual journey to leading a biotech firm was filled with some zigzags, starting with his time studying electrical and computer engineering at UBC.

“My personality and my development has always been closely tied to engineering,” says the CEO, who originally co-founded Aspect as its chief technology officer.

But near the end of his undergraduate studies, his attention started to turn frequently to biology, and he pursued a sub-specialization in the biomedical program.

“It really became clear to me that … we were going to start applying engineering to biology to create biological systems. So instead of using resistors and capacitors to build electrical systems, or instead of using ones and zeros to build computer systems, or metal to build mechanical systems, we could actually now use biological components to build biological systems,” Mohamed says.

“I felt that was just a natural extension of engineering.”

While completing his master’s degree at UBC, he began to question how these concepts could ultimately impact regular people.

The master’s program saw him take business courses on everything from economics to intellectual property, and Mohamed soon found his way into the entrepreneurship@UBC program, which offers skills development and mentorship networks for aspiring businesspeople.

“Things really started to pick up for my overall evolution of a scientist/engineer-turned-entrepreneur,” he recalls.

Perhaps, most importantly, Mohamed realized the importance of getting out of the lab to begin meeting with potential customers and partners to figure out what their needs were.

“I know that there are some people that say, ‘Under-promise and over-deliver.’ I completely disagree with that notion,” he says.

“You always have to set a high bar and even if you were to fail, your failure is a success relative to others.”

While the pandemic is proving challenging for everyone, Mohamed says it’s reaffirmed his decision to pursue a career in biotech.

“We’re in a time where people are realizing, at the end of the day, this is about health,” he says.

“As a biotech industry, we’ll be able to get through this and come out even stronger.”

Mohamed says now is the right time to go on the offensive by keeping his team safe, while maintaining critical manufacturing and research and development.

“There’s a danger of just trying to contract everything to make it seem like you’re doing something,” Mohamed says.

“But if you have the luxury of having a strong balance sheet, which Aspect does, then I think we’re able to make long-term decisions.”

Meanwhile, he’s missing those spontaneous discussions with colleagues at the whiteboard, and walks near the company’s Fraser River-adjacent headquarters in which they’d brainstorm creative solutions to problems they might be encountering.

Outside of work, family visits mean Mohamed, his wife and his daughter only get to see his parents peeking through the window of the latter’s home.

“But it’s all for the good of our communities and for everybody,” he says.

“I would do this times 10 if it means doing our responsibility and really preserving the health of folks.”

There are some added benefits for the family, too.

After travelling about 150,000 kilometres on business last year, Mohamed missed some of his young daughter’s key milestones.

But he now gets to be at home in Richmond each day with the toddler.

“She’s enjoying spending more time with me for sure,” Mohamed says.

He’s also been biding his time with deep dives into podcasts,  such as BBC’s ‘13 Minutes to the Moon’, and books, including Ben Horowitz’s What You Do Is Who You Are.

Mohamed says the venture capitalist’s book emphasizes the importance of people’s daily actions, not necessarily the values they may simply proclaim to uphold.

It’s a principle Mohamed wishes to maintain as part of his management style, acknowledging leading can be challenging due to the responsibilities he has both to his team and shareholders.

“My way of trying to accomplish that is really just surrounding myself with really smart people and doing whatever I can to support the teams to make decisions,” he says.

“That’s a lesson I learned super early on, really from my father. If there was any lesson that he gave me growing up, the one that he kept harping on was just the importance of being humble.… Even if you don’t agree philosophically, statistically there is always somebody smarter than you. The trick is: how do attract those people?”

His answer to that is to think globally, with Aspect’s team of a few dozen boasting workers from more than 15 countries.

So while comments from physical education teachers may have displeased Mohamed’s parents, he took his father’s advice seriously enough to apply it beyond sports and into corporate team building.

“To be honest, winning a soccer game is not that much different than trying to win as a company. Everybody has their own position [and] you have a goal.”

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue of BIV Magazine. Read BIV Magazine: The Sustainability Issue here.

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