Two local doctoral students are capitalizing on recent victories in pitch competitions to build a bioscience startup that could pave the way for better patient outcomes after breast surgery.

Bianca Cerqueira and Lauren Cornell used the cash prizes they won on 11 different occasions to co-found San Antonio-based NovoThelium to develop a biotechnology process that aids in breast reconstruction surgeries.

One in eight women will have invasive breast cancer during her lifetime. In the United States alone, there are approximately 2.8 million breast cancer survivors with 106,338 undergoing breast reconstruction in 2015.

Following a mastectomy, many patients opt for reconstructive surgery, but reconstruction of the nipple and areola area is challenging. While surgeons can repair the area, it often does not look and feel the way it did before surgery, with many patients experiencing a loss of sensation.

NovoThelium’s patent-pending decellularization process uses nipple tissue from cadavers, then removes the original DNA and cells, allowing the tissue to act like a collagen scaffold so the patient’s own cells can grow on it to develop into a more natural-looking and -feeling nipple and areola. The biotechnology maintains the nipple’s proteins and tissue architecture and can be used on current or past nipple reconstructions.

“After surgically removing the previously reconstructed nipple, our scaffold could be sutured in place to enable regeneration of a new one,” Cerqueira said.

NovoThelium has not tested its product beyond the laboratory, but Cerqueira and Cornell plan to start animal studies on pigs later this year.

“The porcine model is similar to human skin,” Cornell said. “The animal studies will allow us to validate performance of the scaffold and make sure the results are translational to human patients.”

In May, NovoThelium won $20,000 by taking first place out of 10 teams at Launch SA’s Venture Challenge Awards. Cerqueira and Cornell also won first place and $10,000 in award money at the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition in Austin.

(From left) Scientists Lauren Cornell and Bianca Cerqueira hold up their most recent award for NovoThelium.
Founders of the San Antonio-based bioscience startup NovoThelium Lauren Cornell (left) and Bianca Cerqueira hold up NovoThelium’s first place award in the InnovateHER business challenge hosted by LiftFund Women’s Business Center. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

On Tuesday, NovoThelium won first place in the InnovateHER business challenge hosted by LiftFund Women’s Business Center, the UTSA Small Business Development Center, SCORE San Antonio, and Launch SA. This gives the co-founders a spot as semifinalist nominees for the national InnovateHER competition to be held in Washington, D.C. later this year. The awards for the top three finishing businesses range from $10,000 to $40,000 for first place.

With only about 7% of late-stage venture capital funding in the U.S. going to female founders, these competitions are providing the NovoThelium founders the resources to continue their work.

“As part of the prize from the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition, we get to ring the opening NASDAQ bell on Aug. 9,” Cerqueira said.

While in New York, Cornell said she and Cerqueira will talk to interested investors.

The two women have filed international patent paperwork and are now focused on the regulatory issues for their product and requirements for medical insurance reimbursement in patients using the biotechnology. If all goes well in the animal testing, they plan on a human clinical trial, which could require as much as $2 million in formal investment funding.

Cerqueira just received her doctorate in biomedical engineering from the joint program between UT Health San Antonio and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Cornell is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in translational science in a joint program involving UT Health SA and three other schools.

The entrepreneurs say they started their company to create a product that gives women an alternative to extensive breast reconstruction.

“After surveying many patients we discovered not everyone is interested in reconstruction surgeries,” Cerqueira  said. “This may be due to the limitations of current reconstruction methods.”

“We sought to provide better options by creating a product that requires only a one-time surgical implantation,” Cornell said.

The startup founders also are trying to help women another way, with an internship program for students considering careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). NovoThelium’s first intern, Kayce Noonan, worked with the company for a year after discovering she liked lab work. The former intern now plans to pursue a four-year degree in science.

“We want to pay it forward, so we gave her a small scholarship of $500,” Cornell said. “That was 10% of the balance in our company’s bank account at the time.”

In addition to taking on a second intern, NovoThelium is looking at venture programs in Europe to secure funding for clinical trials, perhaps conducting trials there, where they are less expensive than in the U.S.

“We focus on providing a beneficial product for our end users, as well as on being cost-effective [in running the startup],” Cerqueira said. “That’s why we’re talking to insurance companies now about reimbursement to see what data they’ll need to determine eligibility and reimburse patients for using our process.”

“We’re not giving up,” Cornell said. “We’ve gotten awards, we’ve gotten lab space. We’re going to see this to its conclusion.”

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.