Jordan Kaufmann does all her work in a nondescript shed in her backyard.
Fully equipped with an air conditioner and a fan, the shed has everything Kaufmann believes she needs to create the next generation of cardiovascular stent-grafts that may someday save lives.
"I figure if all those software startups can begin in a garage, this one can start in a shed in my backyard," she joked. In May, Kaufmann launched Cardiovate, a technology startup that will create the stent-grafts to prevent post-surgery aneurysm leakage.
Kaufmann, who received her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from UTSA in 2012, was sitting at breakfast one day in 2007, brainstorming dissertation topics with her professors, when the subject of aneurysms came up.
There are shortcomings in the current technology, they realized. Stent-grafts are tubes supported by metal mesh that are inserted into arteries, most commonly to support areas that have weakened, or aneurysms. Those that treat aneurysms can migrate. Blood travels around them, which can cause the aneurysm to rupture, leading to death.
So why not create a stent-graft that will encourage tissue growth?
"We looked at it from a tissue-engineering perspective," she said.
A typical graft is inserted into the artery and latches on with barbs pitted into the artery wall. But Kaufmann decided to see what would happen if she brought the wall to the graft, coaxing tissue development between the two.
It took almost six years to create a unique scaffold to promote tissue formation. Called a tissue-engineering scaffold for aneurysm repair (TESAR), it builds a tissue barrier between the blood and the graft after it is implanted. Once the scaffold is in place, the aneurysm stops expanding and the risk of rupture decreases.
After new tissue is in place, the scaffold degrades and is safely reabsorbed by the body.
"It was a very long process to get here," Kaufmann said. It wasn't until after the animal studies came back with better results than traditional grafts that she allowed herself to celebrate.
"I thought, hey, this might actually be something. It was pretty cool."
Her dissertation completed, she decided to turn the technology she had developed into a business.
"Everybody graduates and then works for some big company. That's the recommended way of doing things, to go to work for somebody and learn the ropes and then go do it yourself," she said. "But I thought the opportunity was there, and if you let technology sit for too long, it becomes obsolete. You have to jump on it while it's there. So I figured, why not?"
Shortly after she got her doctorate, Kaufmann won the University of Texas Horizon Fund Student Investment Competition, which provided $50,000 in seed funding for developing TESAR.
With the money, she is working in her shed to get the business off the ground. Her next goal is to get the technology into humans.
"If we can do that, I will mark that as a success," she said. "If we can get anything past that, I will be ecstatic."
Kaufmann is working with College of Engineering Dean Mauli Agrawal and Steven Bailey, division chief for cardiology in the School of Medicine at UT Health Science Center San Antonio, to refine the manufacturing of TESAR.
They expect to make the product available for licensing in 2013. Ideally, it would then be available for use in vascular surgery after federal government evaluation.
"It could be on the market in five years," said Agrawal, adding that the marketing of the technology will depend on regulatory agencies in different countries around the world.
"So much technology dies coming out of the university," Kaufmann said. "You did all this work, you have five or six years of your life spent on this one little thing and then it doesn't go anywhere. But to be able to say, ‘Hey, it's got a shot of being able to go somewhere,' that's pretty cool."
But the plan could still fail, which is something she admits scares her.
"Most startups fail," she said. "You have the odds stacked against you. They fail for some random thing that you never saw coming and you have no control over. It's a little scary that you can put all this [time and effort] into it and it can all fall apart."
But Agrawal doesn't think that's going to happen.
"Jordan is an example of the new breed of UTSA engineering student. She is highly intelligent, innovative and motivated," he said. "I am confident she will make Cardiovate successful and, most importantly, take this technology to the folks who need it—the patients."
Kaufmann is used to taking chances. She has always preferred getting involved with projects from their inception. "I think you get to do a lot more that way. I like projects that I can start instead of jumping on someone else's."
A lover of puzzles and problem solving, she knew from an early age that her future would involve engineering. But it was watching a classmate in elementary school who was unable to run with her friends because of juvenile arthritis that had her thinking about medical technology.
"I started thinking, how can we get her to where she can run without hurting?" she said. "I don't think it occurred to me until years later that that was my first inclination that I could do something in this field."
What drives Kaufmann is the knowledge that she can have a lasting effect on someone's life.
"It's this idea that you can have an impact, whether it is making something for a friend who can't run or something like I'm doing now for aneurysms," she said. "It's kind of neat to be able to have that influence and be able to do something."