How one engineer connects dots — and nerves
When Sarah Tapani and her team were challenged to develop an innovative therapy for overactive bladder – an often-stigmatized condition – they were energized to get to work.
Many patients aren’t accessing therapies available to them, and the Pelvic Health team saw a big opportunity to develop a treatment for overactive bladder that could be more convenient and less intimidating. To tap into that opportunity, Tapani, the tibial portfolio director at Medtronic, and team were tasked with starting in a novel place: a nerve near the ankle.
Tapani is leading an effort to develop a system that includes an implantable device designed to stimulate the posterior tibial nerve. This programmable system transmits electrical impulses designed to stimulate the posterior tibial nerve and provide tibial neuromodulation therapy. The therapy is currently in the investigational stage and has not been approved by FDA for sale in the U.S.
The procedure for implanting this investigational device is less invasive than sacral neuromodulation which is the standard for advanced implantable therapy. And there is a big need: More than 42.6 million adults in the U.S. suffer from overactive bladder. Of those people, only 4% receive advanced treatment.
“I think the team really feels that the opportunity is among us to reach more patients and create therapies that are truly patient-centric in design,” she said.
While Tapani is an engineer, her daily work is largely about cross-functionally connecting dots, supporting change and encouraging innovative solutions. She is energized by the great ideas coming from the team and enjoys facilitating conversations, fostering collaboration, and driving customer-focused decision-making.
“It is very, very motivating to come to work every single day and work with a team that puts patients first, that puts quality first,” she said. “Making safe and efficacious products brings this team together on a daily basis and it drives what we do in pelvic health.”
Tapani grew up in a tight-knit, athletic family that valued hard work and an unwillingness to make excuses. Tapani’s father, who helped inspire her engineering career, has polio in his leg and has worn a leg brace since he was a young child.
“He wanted me to go make him a better brace so he could continue to participate in his kids’ lives and so he could continue to keep up with our future families,” Tapani said.
Tapani said the understanding of the patient experience helps to ground her work and is instilled in every decision she makes at work.
“Everybody on our team uses their mom as in, ‘Would I want my mom to have this?” Tapani said. “We use that our north star to make the right decision for the patient.”
Tapani is a patient-first and team-first leader, said her manager and Senior Director of Product Development in the Medtronic Pelvic Health business, Matt Stonehouse.
“She continually drives her team and their program with intense focus on serving patient needs,” he said. “Concurrent to that she prioritizes the needs of her teammates, consistently putting her peers first when it comes to recognizing the accomplishments they have achieved together.”
Tapani embodies the Medtronic Mission, said Chief of Staff and Senior Strategy Director Kari Concannon who works in the Medtronic Mechanical Circulatory Support operating unit and is one of Tapani’s early career mentors.
Tapani doesn’t want to meet expectations — she wants to exceed them, Concannon said.
“She was tasked with this enormous deadline and she takes it step-by-step,” Concannon said of Tapani’s work in pelvic health, adding her tenacity propels Tapani’s team through roadblocks. “She’s always asking, ‘What else?’”