Three UC Davis alumni look to the golden orb weaver spider as inspiration for their 3D printed spider silk. (Courtesy of Pexels/Pixabay)

Alumni Develop Cutting-Edge Spider Silk for Use in Surgery

Avery Williamson, Haley Noelle and Preston Vanderpan
Pictured, from left: Avery Williamson, Haley Noelle and Preston Vanderpan stand together at the Walter A. Buehler Alumni Center at UC Davis. (Courtesy of 3D OPS)

When Haley Noelle, Avery Wiliamson, and Preston Vanderpan came up with the idea to 3D print synthetic spider silk that could be used to repair tissue injuries in humans in 2019, the three University of California, Davis, undergraduates had zero intentions of starting a company.   

"None of us wanted to be in business," said Noelle. "We went into this as a sole research project slash passion project." 

It wasn't until Aaron Anderson, director of the Student Startup Center, reached out to Williamson a few times to come to the center to take advantage of resources that could help them build a business.  

"We thought, 'You know what, we're just going to go to one of these things so that he stops asking, and if it's dumb, we never have to do it again,'" Williamson said. "Immediately after we got there, we thought, 'Oh, maybe we should turn our idea into a company.'" 

A Web of Support 

Housed in the College of Engineering, the Student Startup Center helps all UC Davis students turn their business ideas into reality. One of the center's programs, PLASMA, provides early-stage companies with an extensive mentor network, educational lessons with industry leaders, seed capital and a rich entrepreneurial work environment. 

The trio worked extensively with the Student Startup Center and PLASMA, as well as the BioInnovation Lab, which allowed them to conduct their first research in a lab space. Noelle was earning her bachelor's degree in cell and molecular biology, while Williamson and Vanderpan were pursuing degrees in mechanical engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering, respectively. They realized, however, that they were capable of starting their own company with a successful product.  

"We met with surgeons, who came back to us saying, 'This is something that we absolutely want and need, and we'd like to be able to purchase from you,''' said Williamson. "We didn't even know that we'd been creating that trajectory for ourselves. We just realized that this was a really good opportunity."  

Spinning Ideas into Action 

The three 2022 alumni now serve as the leadership team for 3D OPS, which stands for organic polymer silk, with Noelle in the role of CEO, Williamson as CTO and Vanderpan as COO. Leaning heavily on their engineering backgrounds and inspiration from nature, Vanderpan and Williamson designed the Ariadne 1.0.  

Noelle and Vanderpan in lab
Noelle and Vanderpan conduct experiments in the UC Davis BioInnovation Lab. (Courtesy of 3D OPS)

The Ariadne 1.0 is a 3D printer that takes a manufactured spidroin protein and recreates the spinning process that occurs in the abdomen of the Golden Orb Weaver spider, whose silk is known for its biocompatibility, strength and ability to promote cell adhesion and growth.  

This resulting silk fibroin glue is non-toxic, mechanically strong and biologically compatible. The company aims for it to be used primarily in bone fracture surgeries, reducing associated complications and decreasing patient pain and discomfort, which will allow for quicker recovery times and better surgical outcomes.  

The idea that they are using nature as an influence on their design is especially compelling for Williamson, who is interested in how things fit together, particularly at the intersection of machines and the living organism.  

"When we started looking into this concept, we knew from the start it is going to be very biomimicry, as in we are taking inspiration from nature and trying to find the sweet spot between machine and animal," she said, "That was really exciting to me." 

A Launchpad for Success 

Established in 2021, 3D OPS is a young company, but is already creating a buzz.  

During UC Davis' 2022 Plasma Demo Day, 3D OPS won the People's Choice Award. In 2023, the team was named a finalist for Innovator of the Year at the UC Davis Innovation Awards, and received a Sacramento Inno Award. In January, 3D OPS was selected as Comstock Magazine's startup of the month.  

The company continues to move forward in establishing their product in the medical field, working with UC Davis Health physicians Dr. Robert Szabo, Dr. Christopher Bayne, and Dr. Kelsey Millar. The physicians assist Noelle, Williamson, and Vanderpan with research and development efforts, like designing cadaver and biological experiments to test the applications of their adhesive. 

Currently, 3D Ops is in preclinical trials, working towards filing an Investigational Device Exemption to the Food and Drug Administration, which will enable the team to use their spider silk products  in premarket trials and acquire the necessary data to get them fully approved.  

Looking back on how it all began at UC Davis, Noelle recalls going up to Williamson and Vanderpan in the campus library while they were doing homework. She was toying with the notion of how to 3D print spider silk, and they had the engineering know-how. They still have the early doodles Williamson made in her composition notebook.  

"I approached them, and said, 'Hey, this will take five minutes of your time,'" Noelle said. "It is probably the biggest lie I've ever told them. Now I just say that I didn't tell them how many five minutes. We like to think of the multiple years we've been working together as many little five minute increments."   

Learn more about 3D OPS 

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