3D Gens and Izhar Aziz bring the power of 3D metal printing to Malaysia
By Karamjit Singh May 8, 2023
- US$1.13mil investment from MTDC crucial for accelerating growth
- Overcame market scepticism with hustle and deep sense of self-belief
[Ed: The first subhead has been edited for accuracy. An earlier version incorrectly described the US$1.13mil as a grant.]
Izhar Aziz, founder of 3D Gens which he launched in 2015 with US$10,360 (RM46,000) in borrowing from his family, is a pioneer in the field of 3D printing for medical implants in Malaysia.
Not surprisingly, being a pioneer, and local, and offering highly technical medical products that the market is used to procuring from the West, proved difficult.
Not just the doctors but government agencies as well. He unsuccessfully tried to get some grants/funding support in the early days. “Nobody believed in me back then. It was depressing, getting rejected so often,” he recalled. “They wanted to see a track record. But show me a startup that has a track record,” he said.
But he buckled down, convinced his less pricey products had an important role to play in the market by making quality medical parts much more accessible to patients in need. He kept giving talks at various public hospitals throughout the country, which had neurosurgery units, his key target market.
This resulted in a call from a hospital in Johor Bharu in 2017 that had experienced a fire that destroyed its bone bank (the general public is unaware that hospitals have bone banks as well). A month earlier he had conducted an awareness session there of what 3D Gens can do.
“They wanted implants and some parts, fast, and said if I gave them a good price, they would place an order without a tender process as this was under an emergency disaster fund.”
That resulted in a US$57,560 (RM300,000) order that was successfully delivered and saw 3D Gens go on to hit RM700,000 revenue for 2017. Revenue has been growing yearly and hit RM3.8 million in 2022 with Izhar focused on accelerating growth this year.
[RM1 = US$0.23]
Making implants cheaper, quicker, more efficient
So, how did a material science engineer with a PhD in 3D Metal Printing from New Zealand, who previously was working in the oil and gas sector, get here?
Despite not having a medical background, Izhar decided to focus on implants for his 3D printing as he realised the cost of customised implants was high in Malaysia. “At the same time, many of those who needed implants came from lower income backgrounds.”
Implants cost between RM25,000 to RM50,000 when Izhar started in 2015 and he boldly declared his goal of bringing them down to RM10,000, even though he was outsourcing the making of his implants to a company in the UK, and had no clear idea of how he was going to be able to afford the 3D metal printer and supporting components and the complex regulatory compliance needed – estimated to cost around RM5 million.
But he had worked for a UK company for two years after getting his PhD, as it was one of the few in the world to own a 3D metal printer back in 2013. He leveraged his trusted relationship with them to outsource the customised implant orders he won. This helped him keep the costs of his 3D made implants down versus the traditional additive manufacturing of implants that the market was using.
From there, it was just pure hustle to keep delivering a quality and great value for money product to customers that surgeons, and patients, benefited greatly from.
Surgeons loved the 3D technology, beyond the customised implant as it is a huge time saver for them, besides allowing them to better plan for their surgeries.
Elaborating, Izhar pointed out that sometimes surgeons lack the full picture of the procedure they will be performing. Differentiating itself, 3D Gens gives them the 3D models that allows them to see the simulation of how the device is going to work in the particular patient, creates physical models to let them touch and feel and mark the area. This on top of the patient specific implant.
“Previously, the simplest neurosurgery would take between 4 hours and up to 10 hours while Maxillofacial surgery (involves any reconstruction, removal, or repair related to the neck, jaw, mouth, teeth, and face) could take between12 hours to 18 hours,” said Izhar.
“But with this 3D technology, every case, regardless of whether it’s complicated or not, can be completed within one hour and 30 minutes,” he claims. “It is like F1 – patient in, patient out,” he quips.
Another benefit to the hospital is that the quick operating times open up more slots for Operating Theatres, most of which run with back to back operations.
Patients benefit from the higher accuracy of the implants built based on the digital imaging of their body part that needs repair/replacement, the lower price, improved aesthetics and shorter surgery time that minimises risk.
Huge boost from MTDC funding
Izhar’s grit and determination to build 3D Gens despite the challenges of winning over a sceptical market and failing to get government support, eventually caught the attention of Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC) which came through with a RM5 million funding through it Business Startup Fund in 2019 that allowed the grateful entrepreneur to purchase his own 3D metal printer, which he said is the first in Malaysia, along with supporting components and comply with the required regulatory compliance.
[Ed: Para edited for clarity.]
However, on the verge of offering his expanded services to the market beyond medical and dentistry, to include engineering services and training, Covid hit.
“It was a huge blow to see everything shut down when we were ready to go big. It was tough on the whole team,” he said.
But it was no time to feel sorry for themselves and quickly the company moved from making medical devices to printing face masks and acrylic boxes and donating them to hospitals. “We were just playing our part when suddenly someone came and paid us to make 50,000 pieces of acrylic boxes to donate to hospitals and then other businesses started ordering various things from us to, all towards fighting Covid,” said Izhar.
With surgeries being scheduled again since last year, and with greater cost efficiencies of owning his own 3D metal printer, with an expanded scope of products to offer, Izhar feels the sky is the limit as to what he can achieve.
The medical sector has seen the value of 3D printing technologies and other sectors are slowly coming around to recognising that 3D printing has moved away from being just a prototype tool.
While excited about the future, Izhar feels 3d Gen’s biggest accomplishment has been to fulfil its promise of reducing the cost of implants to make them more accessible to those who need them. The cost today? Starting at RM5,000 versus the RM25,000 average when Izhar started. The key to this big reduction? Innovative manufacturing process flow coupled with 75% localisation while removing intermediaries and forging strategic partnerships Now that is an entrepreneur who sleeps with a smile on his face and walks with a spring in his steps.
[Ed: Para updated with additional information.]
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