Conversation with Rachel Dreilinger (Diné [Navajo] Nation) Co-Founder and CEO of NeuraMedica Inc.

Improving Spinal Surgery Outcomes Today, Improving Opportunities for AIAN Researchers Tomorrow

NIMHD’s Conversations with Researchers Innovating to Promote Health Equity

November is American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Heritage Month. As we celebrate the significant contributions to the United States—from its history through present day—by people who represent AIAN communities, we recognize researchers who are promoting health equity through their work funded by NIH’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) Program.

Meet Rachel Dreilinger (Diné [Navajo] Nation), principal investigator through the SBIR/STTR program

Photo of Rachel Dreilinger

Rachel Dreilinger is a research investigator and Co-Founder and CEO of NeuraMedica Inc. She serves as the principal investigator (PI) for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program grant, Development of a novel bioabsorbable clip and applier for rapid closure of the dura mater in open and minimally invasive spine surgery, which is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

She is a biomedical engineer with over 24 years of experience in engineering, product development, consulting, entrepreneurship, lab automation robotics, and medical and surgical device development. Since 2008, she’s worked as a consultant specializing in medical device design, and, in 2014, she started a consultancy of her own due to demand for this specialty. Her extensive experience includes orthopedics, neurosurgery, dentistry, bioabsorbable polymers, mechanical design, and all phases of product development. With her business partner, neurosurgeon Dr. Neil Roundy, she co-founded NeuraMedica in June 2014.

She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego.

Q&A with Rachel Dreilinger

What is your research goal, purpose, and aim?
With the help of an NIH NINDS SBIR Phase II grant, we were able to further the design, development, and testing of a bioabsorbable surgical clip for closing the dura mater in spinal surgery. The dura mater, or dura, is a protective membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord and houses cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). When the dura is cut, it releases CSF and needs to be repaired quickly. Prior to our clip, existing closures were extremely difficult to use, time-consuming, and created lacerations in the dural tissue. Our closure clips called DuraFuse™ rapidly close the dura and are non-penetrating to prevent further leakage. DuraFuse clips dissolve in the body over time and are invisible to x-ray and MRI compatible.

NIH funding was instrumental in furthering our research and development activities for the clip. Because of this funding, we received a significant private investment and FDA Clearance for this device in July 2022. We’re currently in the limited launch phase of this project. We’ve conducted successful surgeries and are working to obtain clinical data for our upcoming full product launch.

From your experience working in industry and running companies, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your work and its impact? Please provide a couple of examples.
I’m constantly surprised at how challenging it is to develop and commercialize a medical device, raise money, and run a company. I’ve said before that developing a medical device is like running 10 marathons in a row with no break in between. Once you hit a milestone, another giant goal looms before you. It feels like it never ends. This is difficult for anyone, but for women and people of color, there are other barriers that make it even harder. Systemic racism and gender discrimination exacerbate the normal challenges of commercialization and fundraising; for example, only 2.4% of venture funding goes to women-owned companies. Pay disparity, discrimination, harassment, and imposter syndrome can cause talented people to leave these fields altogether. It’s very challenging to maintain confidence in yourself and your abilities when faced with active and passive discrimination.

We’re changing the paradigm by bringing an implantable neurosurgery device to market at a fraction of the usual cost. With a very small, efficient team and a cost-effective, bootstrapping mentality, we achieved FDA clearance for our device with $3.6 million. The average cost to obtain FDA 510(k) clearance for a medical device is $31 million. I’m extremely proud of our team for this huge achievement. However, it’s unfortunate that medical innovation is so expensive and takes so long.

What inspired you to become a researcher in biomedical engineer and entrepreneur science? How has your heritage impacted your journey?
I’m a member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation, and my clans are T ł 'ízí lání (Many Goats) and Kinłichíi'nii (Red House People). My mom and grandmother are Diné, and my dad and grandfather are bilagáana (White). I didn’t grow up on the Diné Nation, but we’re very close with our family there and visit regularly. I feel lucky to be Diné and am proud of my heritage.

Diné society is traditionally matrilineal and matriarchal, I’ve been surrounded by strong, powerful women and women who are leaders and problem solvers my whole life. However, as a White-passing Native growing up in Western culture, I was inundated with different messages about my role in society and my career options. Native women are not exactly encouraged to pursue STEMM fields—they’re actively excluded evidenced by the very low representation.

Despite this, I excelled at math and science as a young student. As I got older, I became more interested in medicine and biology, but I never wanted to be a doctor. In high school, I heard about biomedical engineering for the first time. Learning how engineering concepts could help solve problems in medicine sounded perfect for me.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists and engineers?
It’s very important for young Native people to see role models in the careers that interest them, such as science, engineering, and medicine. This is why it’s so critical to support, uplift, and fund Native people who are currently in these roles so they can serve as guides and mentors for the next generation.

Native students should not have to leave their tribal nations, reservations, or communities to pursue their goals in technology. I would like to see more funding for technical universities in Native communities and scholarships for students in STEMM fields. It would be wonderful to see commercialization programs in Native communities as well to teach business skills to technology students so they can commercialize products locally instead of having to move away from their families. It is also important to listen to Native communities and address the needs that are expressed.

At my company, we have hosted two Diné interns who are very talented and motivated young women interested in biomedical engineering as a career. They were able to help our small company, and it was wonderful to give them the opportunity to learn more about medical device development.

Also, my family created two scholarship funds in honor of Shimásáni (my grandma) Flora Sombrero. One scholarship is with the American Indian College Fund and the other with the University of Utah Law School. These funds will hopefully help encourage and support Native students in STEMM fields, law, business, and government. One way we can encourage the next generation is by giving back to our communities when we experience success so that is what I hope to do.

Page created Nov. 28, 2023