Engineering Alumna’s Medical Device Startup Celebrates Anniversary & Significant Seed Funding

By:      Ashley Duvelius
Date:   May 12, 2017

UC CEAS alumna Dr. Esra Roan is celebrating the first year anniversary—and also a significant funding milestone—of her medical device startup, SOMAVAC Medical, which develops patient-friendly, post-surgical drainage devices. 

Esra Roan, PhD

Esra Roan, PhD

The origin story of Dr. Esra Roan’s Memphis-based medical device company spun straight from the mouths of surgical patients themselves.

“We heard countless patients describe drainage tubes and bulbs as the worst part of their surgery experience, and we just knew there had to be a better solution for removing post-surgery fluids,” recalls Roan, University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) mechanical engineering PhD ’07 alumna, when asked what the motivation was to establish her medical device company, SOMAVAC Medical Solutions.

Roan further explains, “Each year more than 750,000 patients in the US alone undergo surgeries like mastectomies that form large flaps in tissue layers. These flaps can cause patients to be at a higher risk of post-surgical fluid build-up, so surgeons often place tubes near the surgical site that drain into bulky, cumbersome suction bulbs.

About one in five patients have post-surgery complications and we believe this is due to the inherent design issues of these suction bulbs. With more than 3 million post-op drains being used, this unfortunately is a very common problem, and so we took aim at resolving it.”

Thus, in 2016, Roan and Josh Herwig founded SOMAVAC to create a better solution for post-op drains, one that has the potential to reduce patient complications after major surgeries, improve their healing time and allow them to recover with dignity in the comfort of their own home.  

The SOMAVAC Medical wearable device is less than one inch (2.5 cm) thick and easily concealable under clothing. As opposed to traditional post-op drains which store drainage fluid in bulky, frequently backed-up bulbs, SOMAVAC’s device collects the drainage in sleek reservoirs that are easy to detach and dispose of. With the simple push of a button, the device generates a continuous suction that may promote healing by bringing tissue together, potentially reducing healing time as compared to traditional drains.

And today, the flourishing startup celebrates not only its one-year anniversary but also a significant fundraising milestone—raising $725,000 in seed funding from two lead investors, Innova and MB Venture Partners, and a group of undisclosed individual investors.

Roan and Herwig plan to use the funds to complete product development and seek US Food & Drug Administration regulatory clearance. In early April, Herwig also won the Delta Showcase at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, landing the duo another $10K monetary prize for their startup.

Roan’s own origin story begins in Istanbul, Turkey, the hometown she left in pursuit of an education—and also a collegiate tennis career—in the US. She earned her BS and MS in mechanical engineering from the Tennessee Technological University in 1998 and 2000, respectively.

Shortly thereafter, Roan’s husband, Stephen, accepted a position at Toyota and the pair uprooted to live in Cincinnati, OH. She then worked as a product development engineer for 3M Precision Optics for about two and a half years until she decided to go back to school for her PhD and follow her aspirations of a career in academia. 

Dr. Esra Roan and Mr. Josh Herwig with their prototype. Photo/SOMAVAC.

Dr. Esra Roan and Mr. Josh Herwig with their prototype. Photo/SOMAVAC.


Roan reflects, “When I arrived at UC CEAS, I was about as non-traditional of a student you could get—at the time, I was one of the few females enrolled in the doctoral mechanical engineering program and I was also pregnant with our first son. I remember taking the fundamental PhD engineering exam, which covers 6 topics over a span of two 3-hour days, on a Monday and Wednesday, and then I went into labor!”

She states her advisor, Dr. Kumar Vemaganti, Dr. Urmila Ghia, and Dean Teik C. Lim, who was the mechanical engineering department head at the time, were very accepting and supportive of her.

She affirms, “Dr. Vemaganti, Dr. Lim, and my fellow classmates were truly phenomenal to work with. My friends and I would always be studying in Rhodes hall, we had such a comradery and the conversation was always great. I will forever cherish those memories. I’m actually still friends with everyone from my cohort!”

Roan accredits her time at UC to sparking her initial passion for biomed innovation. “I applied Dr. Vemaganti’s mathematical and theoretical approaches to my healthcare-related research. I worked closely with the biomedical department for four years in the area of soft tissue mechanics that would allow to expand the reach of elastography. We were measuring the stiffness in liver tissue more accurately to help detect diseases.”

Upon graduating from UC in 2007, Roan accepted a mechanical and biomedical engineering joint faculty appointment at the University of Memphis. She started as a research professor and quickly rose the ranks to tenure.

When the opportunity unfolded to kick-start SOMAVAC with Herwig, who was one of her master’s students at the time, Roan took it.

 “While the University of Memphis has been nothing but supportive and I am extremely grateful to be tenured, I could see the potential in practicing engineering. So, I broke the chain and co-founded SOMAVAC,” Roan.

Thanks to the generous backing of private investors and the ZeroTo510 accelerator, the partners hit the ground running.

Roan says her time in academia greatly prepared her for entrepreneurialism as running a research lab, finding grants, and working within a budget is much like being a small business owner.

She hasn’t had any doubt or regrets since day one; “I wanted to work on real problems that I could relate to and could impact society. I find the entrepreneurial path to be fun, fulfilling and also quite challenging. But I’m glad my medical device company has a purpose and I’m afforded the opportunity to make impact patients’ lives better every single day.”

As she continues to accumulate achievements out in industry, Roan maintains her role as an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Memphis, where she strongly advocates for the inclusion, retention and success of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

She addresses, “Although the number of female engineering graduates is indeed on the rise, it’s been estimated that nearly 40% of women who earn engineering degrees either quit or never enter the profession. Forty percent. It’s heartbreaking! But I remain steadfast in my efforts and try to give hope to my fellow female engineers—I always tell them, ‘nothing has to be linear, your career can be as zig-zagged as you wish, take as many turns as you wish!’”

Recounting her own zig-zag path, Roan couldn’t be more thankful for the direction which her life and her career have taken.

“I have to give a shoutout to my business partner, Josh. And also a huge thanks to my husband, Stephen—we married immediately after undergrad 1998 and he has been nothing short of phenomenal. Stephen and my two sons, Ben and Emre, are so supportive, sharing all of the burdens with me. Without them, this would not be at all possible.”

And if she could give future students and engineers any words of advice, Roan would say:

“You can never truly know where your life will take you or where your career will go, but you mustn’t be afraid to make changes. Just try to always have a plan and you will never be defeated.”

Please be sure to support your fellow Bearcat, Dr. Roan, by following SOMAVAC Medical Solutions on Facebook and Twitter, or contact her at esra@somavac.com, eroan@memphis.edu.

 

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