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Take the Risk: Materials Scientist Nearing Retirement Joins Startup

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

Steve Pollack had just about reached early retirement age when longtime friend and colleague Joe DeSimone asked him to join Carbon, his startup 3D printing company. The move was risky for the materials scientist, since he would have to leave his comfortable position as a regulator at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and he and his wife would have to move cross-country from Washington to California.

DeSimone’s ask came after Pollack had invited him to present a talk at the FDA about another company he had founded, a nano-biotech firm named Liquidia. But DeSimone told his old colleague — they were both longtime members of the academic polymer community — that he’d rather talk about his new 3D printing company, which hadn’t yet made its public debut.

“I said ‘Joe, you don’t have a 3D printing company,’” recalled Pollack. “He said, ‘Trust me, I do.’”

After Pollack’s invitation, but before DeSimone spoke at the FDA, his new company began attracting attention. DeSimone gave a TED talk about Carbon, and the Wall Street Journal wrote an article about the new 3D venture. Pollack saw both, and was blown away. Carbon’s digital light synthesis, enabled by its continuous liquid interface production technology, which uses light and oxygen to produce objects from a pool of resin, was a new way of doing 3D printing.

“Afterward, I got on the phone with Joe, just being amazed at what he could come up with and talking back and forth as much as we could talk about science,” Pollack said. As a regulator, he had to be careful about his conversations with a potential applicant for FDA clearance, but Pollack was intrigued.

“I jokingly said at the end of our conversation, ‘You know this sounds like so much fun, let me just quit my FDA job and come and become a lab rat,’” Pollack said. “We left it at that, and later he came to the FDA and gave his talk and asked me when I could retire.”

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Steve Pollack had a comfortable position at the FDA, and was nearing retirement, but chose to join startup Carbon.

Pollack did the calculation, and told DeSimone, “In about a month.”

“Well, that was two years ago,” Pollack said. “And here I am.”

Despite his willingness to be a lab rat, Pollack’s title is research scientist at Carbon, where he’s technology lead for life sciences. As such, he’s able to use what he knows about regulation, materials science and medical device technology every day, and watch his friend’s company grow as other firms benefit from Carbon’s innovative process.

Pollack works with medical device manufacturers, looking at what they’re trying to create and how Carbon’s materials and machines intersect with their ideas. He asks himself: Are we providing a new opportunity for them? Can we help them to produce parts more economically and rapidly? Can we help them through the regulatory process? Are we helping them create objects they couldn’t create any other way? Will this positively impact people?

Ironically, during the last three years of Pollack’s 10-year tenure at the FDA, he and his staff helped write the government’s draft technical guidance for 3D printing of medical devices, which was made public in 2016. They wanted to make sure the FDA reviewers were approaching the newer technology as something that was benign and not dangerous.

“I’m told it’ll probably be full guidance by the end of the year, but I never trust those things,” said Pollack, who talked with some of his former colleagues from the FDA about it at the RAPID + TCT conference in May. “Guidances can be reprioritized according to the whims of what goes on on The Hill [Congress].”

Pollack is so happy at Carbon that he says moving to the Silicon Valley startup is the best career decision he’s ever made. That is saying something for someone who’s worked in all three sectors of the American economy — industry, academia and government — in a career spanning 36 years.

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Carbon’s first foray into medical manufacturing was in the dental industry.

“I enjoyed federal service and I enjoyed the FDA tremendously, but I moved up and further and further away from the lab and into policy and politics, growing more distant from what was my first love, which is science and engineering,” he said. “So, this was a chance to reconnect with those things in a really direct way.”

Meanwhile, Carbon is making its first steps into the medical industry. In 2016, it partnered with Johnson & Johnson for custom surgical medical devices. The company has also produced models for dentists and oral surgeons to use when planning procedures. Its next step may be to develop devices used in the body for dental applications, such as surgical guides for implant surgery. Pollack’s long-term dream is for Carbon to develop a resorbable polymer for medical use.

The company is also hoping to prove its technology is ready for high-volume production, and the mass customization of Industry 4.0. It recently introduced its SpeedCell system of larger printers combined with and connected to its Smart Parts Washer, and partnered with Adidas to produce a lattice midsole for footwear.

“Every day is fun,” Pollack said. “I don’t ever have a day when I’m going to a meeting to be scolded for filling out the wrong form or having a meeting with someone else to scold them for filling out the wrong form, which is sort of how the end of my government service was turning out to be. I am doing real tangible things!

“And it doesn’t hurt that I haven’t been snowed on for the last year and a half.”

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