Spotlight: Maria Artunduaga, MD, MPH, MTM, Ferolyn Fellow

When her beloved grandmother died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a progressive lung condition that obstructs breathing, Maria Artunduaga, MD, MPH, MTM, realized it was an area that needed attention. That incident became a turning point in her training, leading her to the next phase of what has already been a highly accomplished career.

At the age of 39, Maria has developed remarkable resilience, tenacity and the ability to adapt and shift direction, just a few of the key skills medtech entrepreneurs need for success. This, coupled with her passion for helping patients and addressing public health issues, led her to launch Respira Labs, a startup that is developing the first wearable device to measure “air trapping,” a marker of COPD progression and the build-up to a respiratory attack. This summer she was selected to be part of the Institute’s fourth class of Ferolyn Fellows.

Developing a love for medicine early on

Born and raised in Colombia with a father who was an anesthesiologist and a mother who was a surgeon, Maria learned the value of helping people early on, with strong role models who helped inspire her career path.

She graduated in the top of her class from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Colombia’s top medical school, and then worked as a general medical practitioner for four years.

Building on her interest in pediatric plastic surgery and the role of genetics in certain birth defects, Maria spent her last year of medical school at Harvard as a visiting international student. She then returned to Colombia to earn enough money to support herself during her first year of post-doctoral training in genetics at Harvard Medical School, where her work was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and Nature Genetics. She was later accepted as a plastic and reconstructive surgery resident at the University of Chicago.

Changing career paths and launching a startup

As the first female doctor from a Latin American medical school to be accepted into this highly competitive residency, Maria began the program with high hopes, but soon realized she was experiencing few training opportunities. Around that time, her grandmother succumbed to COPD, and Maria opted to shift career paths.

Seeing a gap in treatment options and an opportunity to make a big impact, she shifted gears by completing two masters – the first in public health at the University of Washington, and the second in translational medicine at UC Berkeley, with an eye on finding a better way to predict and prevent COPD attacks, a condition that affects 29 million U.S. adults.

With that highly immersive background, Maria launched Respira Labs. The technology leverages the power of acoustic energy, digital signal processing and machine learning to provide real-time, remote diagnostic-monitoring of deterioration (air-trapping) and early prediction of attacks. It promises to revolutionize COPD management by significantly improving patients’ quality of life and reducing health care costs; acute exacerbation of COPD currently costs the U.S. healthcare system $13.8 billion annually.

In just one year since it was formed, the company has already filed one patent, received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, won several pitching style competitions, begun clinical studies and formed a partnership with the San Francisco Veteran’s Hospital.

Joining the Ferolyn Fellowship

As a first-time entrepreneur, Maria felt that the next natural step was to apply for the Ferolyn Fellowship. “The program provides an invaluable opportunity to work one-on-one with a seasoned mentor who can help guide me as a l lead the company to the next level,” said Maria. “Additionally, Ferolyn’s legacy of leadership and passion for diversity and inclusion in the workplace resonated with me deeply.”

Outside of work, Maria is a strong advocate for increasing diversity and inclusion in the STEM fields and the greater workforce. To that end, she volunteers as a STEM role model and speaker for FabFems and acts as a mentor for the Association for Women in Science. And of course, she leads by example: Throughout her career, Maria has earned over 25 fellowships, scholarships and prizes, including the Entrepreneur of The Year award by Women In IT (2018) and the 40 Under 40 award in Business by Silicon Valley Business Journal (2019).

In her spare time, Maria indulges in the creative side of her brain through the arts, including sculpture and painting, photography, traveling and going to the opera and museums. “One of the first things I do when I visit a city is go to a museum, which inspires me and boosts my creativity.”

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