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Why Amelia Zellander’s passion for tissue engineering keeps her focused on her company, BioLattice

Despite struggles to consistently fund and work on the startup, the founder and researcher said she sticks with it because of the impact it could have for people who need donor tissue.

Amelia Zellander (middle) accepting her award at the Most Diverse Tech Hub pitch competition in October 2023. (Technical.ly/Sarah Huffman)

This editorial article is a part of Biotech Month of Technical.ly’s editorial calendar.

Full disclosure: Technical.ly is also a funding recipient of the PHL: Most Diverse Tech Hub program. That relationship is unrelated to this report.
Amelia Zellander’s pitch at Philly’s Most Diverse Tech Hub pitch competition in October was strong and confident — enough so that she won the first-place $80,000 prize.

Those in the audience might not have imagined any of the struggles she faced to get there.

Zellander is the founder and CEO of BioLattice, a tissue engineering company developing CorneaClear, a biomaterial-based solution for cornea repairs and replacements. She’s been interested in tissue engineering since she was a teen, and pursued an undergraduate degree in biomedical science, a master’s in biotechnology and a Ph.D. in bioengineering.

Throughout her professional career, Zellander told Technical.ly, she pursued jobs and opportunities outside of entrepreneurship — she assumed starting her own tissue engineering company would be too difficult. At one point she started a consulting firm, but realized she was wasting time on work she wasn’t passionate about. A few years ago, she decided to pursue her real passion for tissue engineering.

In 2017, she started a research partnership with Lehigh University where she focused on cornea research, because she had previous experience in that field. BioLattice’s team currently consists of Zellander, a COO, her research partner at Lehigh and a rotation of Lehigh students.

There are millions of people on the donor cornea transplant waiting list, Zellander said, and an alternative to a donor cornea could allow more people to regain their eyesight. The University City-based founder’s big dream is to expand to other organ tissues.

“One of the things that fascinates me about biomaterials and tissue engineering in general is that, in theory, you could change people’s lives in really big ways by focusing on these technologies, by relieving us of our dependence on donated tissues and organs,” she said.

“We’re making progress with a prototype, but it’s not the progress I would like to see because we need a certain amount of investment.”Amelia Zellander BioLattice

Since starting BioLattice in 2017, Zellander said she’s maintained a day job in various bioengineering roles, but she has had a few periods of time where she isn’t working 9-to-5 and can focus more on BioLattice. Those instances are when she notices a lot of growth in the company, including this year.

She was laid off in 2023, but that gave her time to apply for and participate in the MDTH pitch competition at The Enterprise Center as well as the Philly Gets Back in the Black Tech pitch competition. Zellander said she’s only recently started participating in pitch competitions and is now trying to apply and get involved in them every few months.

Most of the money Zellander won from the MDTH competition will go toward research and development, she said. Before the pitch competition, she’d been coordinating with research facilities to prepare her prototype for animal testing and was just waiting for money to fund that move.

“We’re making progress with a prototype, but it’s not the progress I would like to see because we need a certain amount of investment,” she said — a not-uncommon concern, and part of the reason orgs such as those that hosted October’s pitch competitions do so. “And this little tiny bit of investment that I just got from The Enterprise Center is literally going to go a long way, but I am still struggling.”

Her goal is to stay focused on developing the technology, move on to animal studies and then find a way to commercialize the technology.

Zellander said her biggest struggle as an entrepreneur has been balancing her jobs and finding ways to fund her company. Her advice to others: Love the work and believe in the potential impact to make that struggle worth it.

“I love this work,” she said, “but what I don’t love is that it’s just very, very hard to find guidance and to find resources, and I am slowly but surely getting them, but it has taken a ton of work.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Enterprise Center
Series: Biotech Month 2023 / PHL: Most Diverse Tech Hub

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