This is not the age of Trump and it is not the age of Brexit. No one will remember the narrow minded bigotry associated with the US presidential candidate referred to this week by Bruce Springsteen as “a moron”, or the mass suicide attempt of the British people in their own descent into intolerance and isolationalism, if democracies act with the wisdom with which we credit them. As an optimist I believe that we will remember this period as one typified by Jemma Redmond, who died aged 38 in August but whose obituary reached the Guardian last week.
Let me make one thing clear at the start. I did not know Jemma. I came across her company, Ourobotics (www.ourobotics.com) when doing research in advances in 3D printing 18 months ago. I had heard her give a talk (https://www.labtube.tv/video/ourobotics-the-future-of-bioprinting) full of modesty about the advances she had made, full of justified hope for its future impact. I read an interview with her when she was asked what she would like to have printed for herself. Her response – a uterus – was clearly an in joke that I did not understand, though I do now. What I remember was an unaffected personality from the modest Dublin suburb of Tallaght, child of a construction worker and an office worker, who developed a compulsion to solve a problem, gathered the educational qualifications to do it, won a Google Europe funding award, built a start-up inside a Cork-based accelerator in biotechnology and had five patents pending on her accomplishments so far. And then she sadly, suddenly, died.
All of which brings us to the problem she chose to solve. She spoke about the disparity between the huge increase in the number of organs needed for transplant and the modest increase in the number of donors. She identified the issues surrounding the fact that research labs capable of growing human tissue and building the blueprints in software for replicating organs from them were not located close to the hospitals and surgeons capable of using them. So she dedicated herself to the biotechnology of 3D printing using “human ink” – keeping cells alive so that they could be transported and rebuilt into new pieces of human tissue. She believed that growing organs was a less likely solution than transplanting sections of tissue that would result in organic growth. She built a ten jet printer that could store and use human cells, and she demonstrated that her $176,00 prototype could be produced and sold for $12500, within the price range of the world’s 60,000 hospitals.
And she was not just a clever person who got lucky. Listen to her account of lugging her heavy prototype around America to get finance and support. She carefully places the printer on a table in order to demonstrate it, but the table tips as she does so and the machine falls to the floor. So she edges it aside with her foot, while continuing to engage her audience with her presentation. In other words, she walked where all of us have walked who sought, as entrepreneurs, to engage or persuade or cajole support or finance. And she did not do this in Silicon Valley, but in Cork, demonstrating that in Ireland, as in many other parts of the modern world, dreams of the digital future can come alive in a networked society. When the time came, she did not shrink from putting her ideas into a company and leading it as CEO. No doubt our fast moving world will catch up quickly with Jemma’s innovations, though the strong team she leaves at Ourobotics will surely stay very competitive.
Jemma’s ability to drive learning into business development and pitch at goals that stretch the range of human aspiration should be what we mean when we talk about the spirit of our age. I do not know how or why she died so suddenly and that is not the point of this piece. But I do know from the press coverage why the wry comment about printing a uterus got reported. Jemma it appears was born Intersex. In our world, which struggles to increase diversity, reduce gender barriers and allow each of us the full range of opportunity to match our skills and ambitions, this fact, set against her achievements, should alone mark her out of one of the special people who should stand for these troubled but ever hopeful times.