GET TO KNOW WBENC STUDENT ENTREPRENEUR PROGRAM finalist LAUREN CORNELL OF NOVOTHELIUM
For Lauren Cornell, the issue of breast reconstruction after a mastectomy is deeply personal. Her grandmother died of breast cancer after delaying a mastectomy due to concerns on how it may impact her appearance. Lauren is now on a mission to eliminate that fear and hesitation for other women by drastically improving the nipple reconstruction method.
For background, today most nipple reconstruction after a mastectomy involves creating and using skin flaps from the skin on the reconstructed breast to recreate the appearance of the nipple, which is later augmented via tattoo to get the desired pigmentation. Unfortunately, this method creates a nipple that loses projection and has little to no sensation. Lauren co-founded NovoThelium to address this issue by engineering a nipple made from the patient’s own cells, which maintains projection, has natural pigmentation, and improves sensation.
Lauren was also a finalist in the 2018 WBENC Student Entrepreneur Program (SEP Pitch Competition, which took place in June during the WBENC National Conference & Business Fair in Detroit, Michigan. As the premier startup program for collegiate female founders, SEP fosters growth for the next generation of women-owned businesses through a tailored entrepreneurial curriculum, mentorship, and a pitch competition, where students compete for $20k in seed capital. Lauren took second place out of a group of 22 incredible female founders
We interviewed Lauren to learn more about the inspiration behind her company, her entrepreneurial journey so far, and what’s next for NovoThelium.
What inspired you to start your business?
I have a background in tissue engineering and a strong family history of breast cancer. As I progressed through my career as a scientist, I realized that I had a desire modernize nipple reconstruction with the concepts of tissue engineering. I was very fortunate to have the education, passion, and support to chase this dream and improve women’s health care.
On a more personal level, I knew that reconstruction post mastectomy could be important for many women, both mentally and emotionally. While many women in my family have had breast cancer, and not all of them were concerned with reconstruction, one member of my family was. It is my grandmother’s story that has stuck with me through adulthood. My grandmother died of breast cancer when I was very young. She was offered a mastectomy early on, but chose to delay it due to concerns of how she would look after. While she did eventually end up undergoing a mastectomy, ultimately this hesitation claimed her life.
It is something that brings me both great anger and sadness, but it was a different era for reconstruction, and I often wonder if she had had more confidence in her options after, if she would have made a different choice. That is why I am doing this. To prevent that fear, that moment of hesitation. To give women the knowledge that there are options out there for reconstruction. I understand that not every woman wants or need to have reconstruction after mastectomy to feel complete or whole. But I want to be there for anyone who may. I never want a single woman to feel concerned about how she will look after mastectomy, even if it means she will have to lose a nipple. Breast reconstruction has come a long way since my grandmother’s time, but nipple reconstruction has remained largely unchanged. I would like to change that.
What has the entrepreneurship journey looked like for you so far?
I have sincerely enjoyed my journey as an entrepreneur. It has been rewarding in so many ways that I could not have imagined. Being able to pursue my passion and have it become something tangible and real has meant everything to me. Without entrepreneurship and the support we have received, I would not have been able to take my dream from the lab to the patient. So for me, while the journey has many ups and downs, it has been so incredibly worth it. I am constantly inspired by those around me on the same journey, turning what they love into reality. Meeting so many amazing founders and hearing about their desire to change the world has often inspired me to continue my journey, even through difficult times.
What has been the most rewarding part of being a young female entrepreneur?
As a female entrepreneur with a strong connection to breast cancer, I feel that I have the unique opportunity to better connect with my end user, breast cancer survivors. Our company is focused on truly listening to women and trying to provide them the best science has to offer. My co-founder and I have spoken to hundreds of women to ask them how the felt about their reconstruction. We don’t push the product. We aren’t trying to sell anything. We just listen. I feel that being a female, having that personal family history, allows me to connect with their stories in a very special and deep way. It is not something tangible that I can explain, but it is rather a feeling of understanding.
Separately as an entrepreneur, I feel empowered. That I can actually do something about it. When I am listening to the stories of these women, I feel so inspired to get into the world and change it and make it better for them, and I believe that sentiment translates to them and gives hope. That is such an incredible honor. So truly, I feel the combination of being both a female and an entrepreneur has aided me so much in my quest to improve women’s health care.
What three traits define you?
Honesty. Integrity. Hard work.
What is one thing you wish the people better understood about your industry or business?
I am on a mission to make the word nipple less scandalous. When people hear it, they become uncomfortable. We have actually been told a time or two to use a different word when presenting. But this is a real medical problem and it is something that needs to be addressed. It is what is and there is no other word for it. Every time we give a pitch in a public setting, a woman with breast cancer comes and speaks with us after and says, thank you for talking about this. I feel that if the women we are trying to reach out to are comfortable with the term, then we as a society should be more open to allowing the term in medical and business discussions. It is nothing to be ashamed of and we are proud to be working to provide nipple areolar grafts.
What advice would you give to other female founders just starting their business?
The most important piece of advice I would give is to just do it. The idea of my product came to me years before I ever pursued turning it into a business. I waited because I didn’t know where to start or if I could even achieve starting a business. Just go for it and if you need help, take advantage of the numerous programs around you to work through your idea and business plan. We are so fortunate that there are many experienced people out there wanting to help you get started and give you advice. It is worth taking.
My second piece of advice would be to be teachable. Be open to the idea of modifying your business plan. That is not to say you should give up the core essence of what you are trying to achieve. Rather, that a mentor has years of experience and maybe has some additional foresight to bring to the table. It is okay if you don’t end up with the EXACT idea you started out with. Learn to adapt.
How did you first learn about the WBENC Student Entrepreneur Program?
We came across the WBENC program when we were looking for female mentors and female based entrepreneurship programs.
How would you describe your experience?
Phenomenal. I would do it over again and I would love to attend next year. It is completely worth it.
What did it feel like getting up in front of an audience and judges to pitch your business?
It was very nerve wrecking, but in the end, the experience made me a stronger presenter.
What did you learn during the program that will help you grow your business?
I learned that it takes a village. The term master mind came up during our talks there some of the girls have reached out to form one for our cohort this year. I think this is a fantastic idea and the support and varying viewpoints will be very helpful when facing issues.!
What’s next for you and NovoThelium?
Collaborations. We are working to set up clinical trials to take our product to the next level. This is a very exciting phase for us and it brings us one step closer to getting our product to the patient population.