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IntuiTap: Medical Innovation Hopes to Revolutionize Spinal Taps

Jessica Traver
Jessica Traver is the CEO of IntuiTap Medical, Inc.
Ask anyone who's ever had a lumbar puncture or epidural: having a needle inserted into your spine is not the most pleasant experience. And it's no easier for the doctors who perform the procedure, who are largely working by feel. This hundred-year-old technique often leads to mistakes, pain for the patient, and extra time in the hospital. Now a Purdue Engineering alumna is bringing lumbar punctures into the 21st century, by developing a handheld device that can digitally detect vertebrae and indicate exactly where to insert the needle.

"It's like a stud finder for the spine," says Jessica Traver (BSME '14, MSME '17), CEO of IntuiTap Medical in Houston, Texas.  "With all the technology available to us, it's time we improved this procedure, and improved the lives of our patients and physicians." As co-founder of this medical startup, Jessica was recently recognized by Forbes Magazine in its 2017 "30 Under 30" list, highlighting people under 30 years old who are having an impact in healthcare and other fields.

 

 

Purdue Engineering wasn't an obvious choice for Jessica, whose parents are both lawyers in California.   "Growing up, I always knew I wanted to help people," she says, "but I didn't know exactly how to go about doing that." A high school physics class spawned a fascination with the way things worked -- which led to Mechanical Engineering, and eventually to Purdue.  "The Mechanical Engineering program is top-ten every year, but it was more than that. I wanted the real college campus atmosphere. And when I visited, they had so much school spirit, and everyone was so nice to me. Plus they had the best weather I've ever experienced in Indiana, on the one day that I visited! I was sold."

Like most engineering students, Jessica fought through her fair share of tough classes, and eventually became drawn to design -- specifically of biomechanics and medical devices. "My senior design project was a passive prosthetic for children with limb-length discrepancy.  We developed the manufacturing technique for the prosthetic, so they could be custom-built for each person."  Her work in biomechanics led her to graduate study under professor Eric Nauman, who researches concussions in high school athletes.

Jessica then entered a unique program at the Texas Medical Center in Houston, the largest medical center in the world. "We essentially spent four months rotating into the hospitals, just being eyes and ears and looking for inefficiencies or complications," says Jessica.   They zeroed in on lumbar punctures, which caused numerous instances of patient pain, doctor frustration, and ER bottlenecks. "From an engineering standpoint, I kept asking, 'why are we not doing this a different way?' And they answered, 'This is how we've been taught.' So we began testing different technologies to see what worked best."

Her team developed a handheld device with advanced pressure sensors, as well as a digital screen that shows physicians the exact location of the vertebrae -- the "stud finder." Texas Medical Center provided them a startup space, and Jessica's team of engineers and advisors became IntuiTap Medical, Inc., with Jessica as the CEO.

"Being a startup CEO is crazy!" admits Jessica, now 26 years old, and supervising clinical testing of the new product. "I'm responsible for my team; I'm responsible for the money that's coming in from investors; I'm responsible for the physicians and patients that might use it. There's a lot of pressure. But it's been an amazing experience just figuring out what it takes to bring something from a simple design, out into the marketplace."

Being named to Forbes' 30 Under 30 list certainly helped. "It was as much a surprise to us as it was to anybody!" she says. "But it's given us a lot of momentum, and a lot of attention -- people know who we are now, and want to collaborate on clinical studies. I get emails from many patients who have had terrible epidurals, and while you hate hearing about the bad ones, it's great to say, 'We're going to make this better.' "

For Jessica, Purdue Engineering provided not just the technical background, but also a certain mental toughness. "Engineering at Purdue is tough," she admits. "If you can get through that, you can pretty much tackle anything. I can manage my time as a CEO; I can solve problems; I can work with a team. I can handle pretty much anything that's thrown at me, because I've done it all at Purdue."

Startup culture has energized Jessica, who sees IntuiTap as the first of many. "I want to keep working on exciting projects, specifically ones that can impact people's lives in a positive way. That's what I've always wanted to do, and now, I'm helping to make it happen."

Learn more about the IntuiTap at intuitapmedical.com.