Connecting the Dots

Connecting the Dots Heading with Sandra Urdaneta–Hartmann

With her wide smile, stunning good looks and charming personality, Sandra Urdaneta–Hartmann doesn’t fit the mold of your typical scientist. Let alone one who is tackling one of the most pressing and talked about issues of our time.

Five days a week, Urdaneta–Hartmann — a Ph.D., M.D., and Drexel LeBow MBA ’09 — enters and exits Amtrak stations at a pace somewhere between a fast walk and an all-out sprint. Her kinetic commute is merely the precursor to her day as research scientist, medical doctor, entrepreneur and administrator who is tackling a global issue: preventing the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, between infected mothers and their nursing babies.

On one end of her two-hour commute is bucolic Lancaster, Pa., where Urdaneta–Hartmann, who turned 40 earlier his year, lives with her husband and children, ages 13, 4 and 3. At the other end, bustling Philadelphia, where she works as the assistant director of the Center for Women’s Health Research at Drexel’s School of Medicine.

It is no accident Urdaneta–Hartmann chose medicine. Her parents, older brother and sister are all physicians. She grew up in Maracaibo, Venezuela, speaking both Spanish and English because both parents are bilingual. They learned English during their own medical residencies in the United States. Urdaneta–Hartmann excelled in school and became a national chess champion at age 13. But unlike the rest of her family, all of whom are practicing physicians, she pursued a different career path after earning her medical degree in Venezuela.

“By the time I finished medical school, I had decided that I wanted to be a scientist,” she says. “I wanted to do translational research. I wanted to connect the dots and have the product of my research reach the masses.”

The first step toward that goal was earning a doctorate at Penn State, where she studied microbiology and immunology with Mary K. Howett, Ph.D., who later became head of Drexel Med’s department of bioscience and biotechnology. She asked Urdaneta–Hartmann to join her at Drexel as a research assistant. Shortly thereafter, Urdaneta–Hartmann’s mentor made a breakthrough discovery: sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS), an ingredient found in household products such as toothpaste, can kill HIV.

“Mary patented the compound, but she was not an entrepreneur,” says Urdaneta–Hartmann, who established Renaissance Scientific LLC with Howett, to help translate their discoveries into commercial applications. The partners developed 19 global new-use patents for compounds using SDS, ranging from personal lubricants for prevention of pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases to hand sanitizers, disinfectants, nipple guards and even veterinary applications.

“At the same time, Mary became ill with leukemia,” Urdaneta–Hartmann says. Howett continued to battle her illness for years, but “as her condition worsened, she asked me to take over her work, telling me, ‘You can take it to the next level,’” Urdaneta–Hartmann recalls.

Entrepreneurial by nature but with no formal business education, she decided she would “leave no money on the table” by taking MBA classes as part of her Drexel employee benefits.

“I knew that the MBA would be useful to our new venture, and Drexel was the best place to learn about entrepreneurship,” she says. “To this day, I consider my LeBow MBA the most useful of my degrees in terms of application and helping me in all aspects of my career. I had never taken a course in finance, and I was excited to apply what I learned immediately. There was great synergy between learning and application.”

One of Urdaneta–Hartmann’s first stops was LeBow’’s Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship, where she participated in classes, workshops and competitions. In its first attempt, Renaissance Scientific scored big, taking first place in the Business Plan Competition, a victory that earned the start-up space in Baiada’s business incubator.

Renaissance Scientific was also recognized in a number of other business competitions: At Purdue University’s Life Sciences Business Plan Competition in 2007, the team took 4th place and a $20,000 cash prize. The teams also finished among the top winners at Carnegie Mellon University’s McGinnis Business Plan Competition and Wake Forest University’s Elevator Pitch Competition.

“I find that there is a lot of misconception about research; that we are disconnected from the world of business.”

Urdaneta–Hartmann also worked closely with the staff at the Baiada Center, including Executive Director Mark Loschiavo, and to this day she considers him and the rest of the staff her friends.

“I was immediately impressed with Urdaneta–Hartmann when I first met her,” Loschiavo says. “She was attending a workshop about building a company around intellectual property. She and Mary were working on commercializing a compound for use as a lubricant for condoms and a vaginal gel.

“From my perspective, it’s not often that we see a new venture or technology that can change the world, and I saw this discovery as one of those,” Loschiavo adds. “Urdaneta–Hartmann is remarkable. She has tremendous capacity and tireless enthusiasm.”

In 2008, the global economy and Howett’s health both took a turn for the worse. Urdaneta–Hartmann struggled to find investors and Howett succumbed to her illness. Quickly, the company’s future became uncertain. “While we made some progress, the venture had taken a big hit by September of 2008,” she says. With Howett’s death, the team lost its lab space, and Urdaneta–Hartmann’s position was downgraded to a part-time position. Urdaneta–Hartmann gave birth to her third child, continued taking MBA classes while working with the Baiada Center, but decided at the end of 2009 that enough was enough. She folded Renaissance Scientific.

With three young children at home, Urdaneta–Hartmann was happy to have more time to spend with them. It was also a good opportunity to regroup and contemplate how she could continue her life’s research. And for the first time in a long time, she also had the opportunity for some “me” time, pursuing some activities that she had previously put on the backburner, such as playing the piano, going to concerts with her husband, sleeping late when her kids would let her, and gardening, probably her favorite pastime.

“Gardening helps me relax,” Urdaneta–Hartmann says. “We have a bit of land, and I do all of my own landscaping. I love flowers, particularly lilies. I even named one of my daughters Lily.” After a year she began searching for a new opportunity and met Michele Follen, M.D., Ph.D., the newly appointed director of research for the Center of Women’s Health Research in the Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership at, of all places, Drexel’s Medical School. Follen asked Urdaneta–Hartmann to resume her research and join her as assistant director of the Center.

“I was thrilled,” Urdaneta–Hartmann says. “We are working to build a strong program in translational research. Our goal is to improve women’s health in developing countries. Currently, we are working on a program to prevent cervical cancer in Nigeria.” In addition to her new administrative responsibilities, Urdaneta–Hartmann continues her life’s work on preventing AIDS transmission from nursing mothers infected with HIV. She continues testing that common household product, sodium dodecyl sulfate. She is also exploring the commercial viability of a silicone nipple shield to prevent transmission of HIV through breast milk.

“As an administrator, I write grants constantly trying to get funding for our many initiatives. They’re not business plans, but I use the same skills I learned in business school in writing them,” Urdaneta–Hartmann says. “My business education has really helped me in my role as an administrator.

“I find that there is a lot of misconception about research: that we are disconnected from the world of business,” Urdaneta–Hartmann continues. “But we have common challenges, we have deadlines to meet, and we sacrifice sleep to get our jobs done.

“I still have many dreams,” she says. “In the future, I may have a role in developing a global health company, and I know that my business education will help me as much as will my medical and doctoral degrees.”

One thing that won’t change in the near future is her crazy commute.

“Everyone asks me why we don’t just move to Philadelphia since we both work here,” she says. (Urdaneta–Hartmann’s husband, Karl, is principal of a private equity investment firm based in Bala Cynwyd.) “We have extended family in Lancaster, we have schools we like, and neighbors we adore. We commute so my daughters don’t have to. Plus, it gives me a chance to catch up on emails and reading.

“Did I mention I like to sleep?”

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