A New Wrinkle on Vascular Implants

Edith Tzeng, professor of surgery in the School of Medicine; chemical engineering faculty member Sachin Velankar; and Pitt chemical engineering graduate Joe Pugar, with synthetic vascular graft device.

This story is excerpted and adapted from an article by Mike Yeomans, originally published on the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute blog.

Joe Pugar, a 2017 graduate of Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, has always been fascinated with the elegant structures, systems and mechanics of nature and the prospect of adapting the genius of natural design to engineering challenges.

That’s what attracted him in his sophomore year to a summer research project in the lab of chemical engineering faculty member Sachin Velankar.

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Established in 2009 by Pitt alumnus Bob Randall (A&S '65), the competition is open to Pitt students from first-year though postdoc. It awards a total of $100,000 in prizes — including a top prize of $25,000 — to advance promising innovations.

Project videos have been posted and pitches honed. Winners will be announced at the Randall Family Big Idea Competition awards celebration, set for 5 p.m., Thursday, March 21, in the Charity Randall Theatre, 4301 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.

Velankar was collaborating with Edith Tzeng, professor of surgery in the School of Medicine and Luka Pocivavsek, then a resident in the Department of Surgery, to develop a vascular implant that imitates the natural wrinkling that prevents platelets from clumping and blood from clotting inside blood vessels.

They had just shown that their prototype artificial graft demonstrated properties similar to human arteries, which are wrinkled inside during diastole (when there is no pressure in the vessel following a heartbeat) but wiped clean at systole, when the wrinkles are stretched smooth by the pressure of the blood passing through at the next heartbeat.

Pugar didn’t imagine that within three years he would be taking this innovation out of the University as CEO of a startup company, Aruga Technologies.

“Before getting involved in this project, I was probably going to go straight to grad school. Business and technology translation weren’t interesting to me. But after seeing the impact that this idea could have, I accepted the challenge of being an entrepreneur,” he said.

In spring 2016, the team turned to the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute’s Pitt Ventures First Gear program, where entrepreneur-in-residence Tony Torres led them through the process of customer discovery and value proposition definition to determine whether there was a market for this technically promising concept.

“We started picking the brains of other vascular surgeons” at UPMC Presbyterian, Pugar said. “We asked if our graft was something they could get behind. We got our answer when some of the first doctors we talked to became members of our scientific advisory board.”

As the team went through the First Gear experience, Pugar also entered student innovation challenges, winning $21,000 in prize money through Pitt’s Michael G. Wells and Kuzneski Innovation Cup competitions to advance the innovation.

The project had already received $45,000 in awards from Pitt’s Center for Medical Innovation, which promotes active collaborations between clinicians and engineers to develop innovations to solve biomedical problems.

After seeing the impact that this idea could have, I accepted the challenge of being an entrepreneur.

Joe Pugar, (ENGR '17)

As he completed his undergraduate degree, Pugar wanted to continue to usher the graft toward commercial reality where it could offer patients a potentially better alternative to having their own veins harvested or receiving cadaver vessels for vascular reconstructions.

Said Torres, “We specifically created and funded an Entrepreneurial Fellow position at the Innovation Institute to bridge him over into the Aruga spinout, effectively allowing him to take on the startup instead of the traditional engineering job in an established corporation.”

The National Science Foundation I-Corps program, which assists in commercializing promising academic research, infused $50,000 into the project, and required another 100 customer-discovery interviews.

“This helped us polish our value proposition,” Pugar said. It also led to being accepted into the Pittsburgh-based Idea Foundry accelerator.

In 2018, Pugar negotiated an option to the Pitt intellectual property and formed Aruga, which is based at LifeX Labs on Pittsburgh’s South Side.

Co-founder Pocivavsek, now a vascular surgery fellow at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, is Aruga’s chief technology officer; Tzeng and Velankar are part of its scientific advisory board, and Torres, who oversaw the company’s incorporation, leads its board of managers.

Having raised a total of $270,000 on non-dilutive funding via the Pitt innovation ecosystem to advance the technology, Aruga is seeking $1 million in seed funding to move from prototype to a market-ready device and begin preclinical testing.

The company initially is focused on dialysis access grafts, which present the same thrombosis and infection issues as vascular grafts. Ultimately the company plans to target the multi-billion dollar market for coronary grafts.

“LifeX brings a lot of really smart, business savvy people who understand how the biotech commercialization process works and an understanding of the FDA and all of those regulatory pathway issues,” Pugar said. “It also provides a great platform for us as we begin to seek investment partners to help us accelerate along the path to market.”