The Toronto-based startup gives people the power to easily preserve their own stem cells for future regenerative medicine treatments via a process called cryopreservation

While the anti-aging industry’s goal may be to slow down time, advances towards doing so are picking up at the speed of light. A field once dominated by creams and vitamins morphed into a lucrative beauty tech sector over the last decade, and is now on the cusp of even more significant developments courtesy of regenerative medicine and cell treatments. Canadian startup Acorn Biolabs is at the forefront of what co-founder and CEO Dr. Drew Taylor calls the “anti-aging revolution.”

Based in Toronto and founded in 2017, Acorn Biolabs offers people the ability to preserve their own stem cells for use in future treatments, which could address an array of cosmetic concerns from hair regrowth to skin rejuvenation. Cell treatments are also poised to address non-cosmetic ailments, including injury recovery and the treatment of certain diseases.

The name Acorn is a clever nod to how squirrels gather acorns in warmer seasons to tuck away for the winter, similar to how they allow clients to freeze and store their stem cells for later use. “An acorn will also sprout into a mighty oak,” says Taylor.

The future isn’t far off, either. Over 240 Stage III clinical trials for cell treatments are in progress as of 2022, and the market’s value is predicted to reach $26 billion by 2026.

We sat down with Taylor and Acorn Biolabs COO Will Hall to learn more about this rapidly evolving medtech field and how they aim to play a key role in mainstreaming its vast potential.

The anti-aging revolution

The allure of anti-aging isn’t new, but Taylor believes we’re on the cusp of a new era. “There’s a shift from the goal of just treating symptoms to actually intervening and getting ahead of the game with prevention,” says Taylor. “Ultimately, aging is the accumulation of damage. And as we go through that aging process, it ends up manifesting itself as something we define as disease. If we can actually treat the effects of aging, essentially, we’re going to be staving off disease.”

He says people don’t necessarily want to have longer lives, but, “they want the quality of life while they’re alive to be maximized.” As such, rather than thinking about lifespan, Acorn is currently focused on extending “healthspan.”

Many consumers have already bought into this preventative way of thinking about aging via wellness routines, nutritional supplements, and even pharmaceuticals, but regenerative medicine is still a fairly untapped pillar with huge market potential.

Another influential trend is consumers’ preference for more natural anti-aging solutions. “And there’s nothing more natural than leveraging your own biological material,” says Taylor.

Acorn offers people the unique opportunity to do so by non-invasively collecting stem cells from their hair follicles. Acorn then freezes those cells at -190 degrees Celsius, which stops their metabolism and the impacts of aging. In science lingo, this is called “cryopreservation,” which is a method also widely used to freeze sperm cells, eggs, and umbilical cord blood. Acorn says with this method, in theory, cells can be preserved indefinitely. The startup also has patented cell-derived treatments created from hair follicles.

“I liken [regenerative medicine] to other technologies that took time to really take off. I use air flight as an example a lot, because it was super exciting and had the potential to deliver a lot of value to people.”

Eventually, the cells will be able to recreate the things our bodies stop producing as we age, such as collagen, elastin, hyaluronic acid, and various growth factors. “We’re just at the precipice of what we’ll be able to do in this space,” says Taylor.

“I liken it to other technologies that took time to really take off. I use air flight as an example a lot, because it was super exciting and had the potential to deliver a lot of value for people,” he says. “But when it was invented in 1903, the technology was only able to carry people 100 feet, so it wasn’t yet delivering value for people. Fast forward 40 years, and the first passenger was finally carried across the Atlantic Ocean. Within another 10 years, we discovered supersonic flight, then within another 10 we landed on the moon. The acceleration of that technology became rapid and I think regenerative medicine is only at the point where we’re just crossing the Atlantic.”

Ultimately, Taylor sees a future where cells can be used to 3D print organs for patients on demand.

Connecting sports and science

Taylor, who holds undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology from the University of Michigan and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto, doesn’t have a traditional medical or startup founder career path. Actually, he started off as a professional minor league baseball player, pitching for both the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies.

Will Hall, Acorn’s Chief Operating Officer, formerly competed in high-level sailing, even winning a couple World Championships. It was the duo’s shared love of and experience in sports that allowed them to hit it off and discover their similar interest in healthcare and how the body works.

However, baseball and sailing aren’t just pursuits of years past for Taylor and Hall––their athletic history is key to how they approach business in the highly competitive startup world.

“The number one lesson was how to deal with adversity. When you’re an entrepreneur running a company, there are a lot of things that go wrong,” says Hall. “If you haven’t built that thick skin and toughness in another environment, it’s pretty easy to crumble or bolt. But we’ve both lost before, fought back, and won. We know how to power through.”

“Coming from a sports background is a fantastic way to develop and understand yourself as a person, and understand how you fit into a team.”

“Well, I’m a better scientist than baseball player, so I’m in the right place,” jokes Taylor. “But coming from a sports background is a fantastic way to develop and understand yourself as a person, and understand how you fit into a team. Certainly, in sailing, when you have multiple members on a boat and they all have a specific task, you’re relying on each other. Baseball is no different; the makeup of a catcher is very different from your centerfielder, which is very different from your pitcher. You’re bringing together very disparate talents, working toward a common goal.”

He says the best lesson team sports taught him is how to bring together a group of people and “surround yourself with individuals who do something better than you. And that’s what Acorn is; we’ve assembled a phenomenal team.”

Most recently, we’ve hired a Chief Commercial Officer, Crystal Muilenburg, who has worked in the medical aesthetics category for nearly 20 years. She has launched some of the most successful products in the category, in the U.S. and Internationally. This is another example of bringing in top-level talent at the right time to take the company to greater heights.

Taylor’s baseball career also opened his eyes to the need for regenerative medicine. “My baseball career ended with a shoulder injury––I wish I had some regenerative medicine opportunities back then, but hopefully they’ll be available in the future.”

Government regulation as a competitive advantage

Often, the slow world of government bureaucracy is an enemy to fast-paced startups. However, when it comes to regenerative medicine, Taylor says Canada’s strict regulatory regime is part of what sets them apart from international competitors.

“I would, unfortunately, characterize the world of stem cells as a pretty gray space right now. We’ve all seen social media and posts on the internet about traveling down to tourism destinations outside of the U.S. or Canada and receiving an IV stem cell treatment. People are traveling to these places because they’re trying to circumvent regulations imposed by the FDA and Health Canada,” he says. “But, while we may complain about those bodies moving slow, they’re acting in the best interests of patients and ensuring treatments are delivered in a safe and efficacious way. Going around them and going south can introduce risk.”

In fact, he’s seen patients return from such trips in worse condition than when they left. On the other hand, others have great experiences abroad, but it’s akin to rolling the dice in an environment where less scrupulous groups or providers are rushing to tap into the huge profit potential of cell treatments.

Further, unlike Acorn, most international companies don’t use patients’ own cells, which can lead to rejection issues.

To date, Acorn counts two ISO (International Organization for Standardization) laboratories––one in Canada and one in the U.S., which act as hubs for Acorn to intake cells and process them. The company’s U.S. lab has been audited by the FDA and has California Tissue Bank certifications. Because their current services aren’t diagnostic or medical treatments, but considered cosmetic, they haven’t yet needed additional approvals, which Taylor says is “the next hurdle for us to approach.”

In the meantime, Acorn’s recently closed their Series A funding round of more than $8M USD, which was led by Merz Aesthetics and included TELUS Global Ventures. The funding, is being used to finance their patented topical cosmetic applications, which will be be available through dermatologist and plastic surgeon’s offices in the next year. Merz is one of the world’s largest medical aesthetics companies and those who’ve dabbled in the world of medical cosmetics may recognize leading Merz brands Xeomin, Radiesse, Ultherapy, and Belotero––attracting their attention is a big deal.

“Also, more than sixteen physicians have jumped on the round, which is really great because it validates a lot of the work we’ve done, that they’re showing so much interest in it,” says Hall.

He attributes part of Acorn’s fundraising success to the fact they’re not a “typical biotech company.” By that, he means that most biotech startups remain pre-revenue for an elongated period of time, whereas Acorn is already bringing in revenue and is poised to increase that dramatically with cosmetic therapies. Entering the market on the cosmetic topical side, rather than traditional medical care, also de-risks Acorn in investors’ eyes.

What’s next for Acorn Biolabs?

Taylor and Hall are excited about the company’s near future as successful research, secured funding, and regulatory approvals all begin to converge and accelerate Acorn’s potential growth. He has big visions for the next five years: “I hope to be available in pretty much every town you can think of across Canada in the U.S., so that every patient has the opportunity to preserve their cells,” says Taylor.

“I also think you’ll see the first opportunities outside of North America to be banked at Acorn and, on top of that, I think we’ll have our topical cosmetic therapies in full steam across all of those locations as well. Finally, I’m hoping the next versions of treatments are released by Acorn, including the potential to have injectables well on the way.”

If you would like to learn more about Acorn Biolabs, visit their website

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