Co-Founder and CEO of NovoThelium
By Blithe Wiley
Photography by Natalia Sun
NovoThelium Co-Founder and CEO Lauren Cornell was inspired to launch her company in part by the untimely loss of her grandmother to breast cancer. Cornell founded NovoThelium with Co-Founder and COO of the company, Bianca Cerqueira, in 2015. NovoThelium is developing a bioengineered matrix from donor nipple areolar tissue for nipple reconstruction after mastectomy.
“My grandmother passed away from breast cancer because she hesitated to get treatment,” Cornell said. “She was worried about what she would look like after surgery, as reconstruction options at the time were limited, so she waited too long to get a mastectomy.”
Today, one in eight women will have breast cancer in her lifetime. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the number of breast reconstruction procedures increased from 78,882 in 2000 to 137,808 in 2020.
Cornell noted the biggest challenge in current post-surgery breast reconstruction is nipple reconstruction. “A surgeon will try to preserve the nipple if possible,” Cornell explained. “If this is not possible, the surgeon will suture the skin on the breast mound into the shape of a nipple. Then it is tattooed for the desired pigmentation. The drawback to this technique is that it creates a “nipple” which loses projection within about three years.”
Cornell noted that a major factor in patient satisfaction with the reconstruction results is nipple projection. “Nipple reconstruction is a key part of a woman’s post-mastectomy mental and physical healing. We have conducted focus groups with breast cancer survivors, and the number one comment we hear from women about their nipple reconstruction is ‘I do not feel whole,'” she said.
NovoThelium’s nipple reconstruction method uses an actual nipple from a donor tissue bank. This patented technology removes donor DNA to create an acellular nipple areolar scaffold from the human donor tissue. After implantation onto the breast, cells from the patient repopulate the grafted nipple areolar complex scaffold to create an actual nipple made with the patient’s own cells.
Prior to launching NovoThelium, Cornell amassed an impressive array of academic and medical research accomplishments. She graduated from Texas A&M University magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in Genetics, working at the University of Oxford in her last semester. She later earned her master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering through the joint program of the University of Texas Health Science Center and the University of Texas at San Antonio. She completed her doctorate in the Translational Science Doctor of Philosophy program, a joint program administered by the University of Texas at Austin, UTSA, and UTHSCSA.
As a graduate student, she was accepted into a Food and Drug Administration Fellowship, received a Military Health Young Investigator Award (Military Health System Research Symposium), and was selected for a Texas Business Hall of Fame Future Texas Business Legend Award.
After graduation, Cornell held several sensory trauma research positions with the United States Army Institute of Surgical Research. She currently works as a Research Scientist with the U.S. Air Force 59th Medical Wing. She was recently selected as an Analog Astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and lived in a Mars Analog Habitat for 45 days utilizing her scientific and business backgrounds in the process. Cornell attributes much of her professional success in the healthcare research field to her role models. Whenever I go to a new institution, I seek out strong women role models,” she said.
NovoThelium has won a number of awards, both nationally and internationally, and has won or placed in more than a dozen business plan competitions. The company also was recognized by the Small Business Administration for “Women in Science Day.”
Cornell and Cerqueira’s long-term vision for NovoThelium is to develop multiple women’s health care products. “We want to provide solutions that enhance women’s lives and wellbeing.” Cornell spends her free time drinking coffee at Merit and with her dog Toro who she says has been very supportive of her work.