Torigen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. is a biotech startup working out of the University of Connecticut Technology Incubation Program (TIP).

Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Ashley Kalinauskas, CEO and Founder of Torigen, about her entrepreneurial journey.

NAN PRICE: When and why did you launch the startup?

ASHLEY KALINAUSKAS: The startup is a result of my graduate research at the University of Notre Dame, where I worked with Dr. Mark Suckow, Associate Vice President for Research. Dr. Suckow spent 10 years researching and developing an innovative cancer treatment that uses a patient’s own tumor cells to create a personalized immunotherapy.

Dr. Suckow had completed years of mouse model studies that showed efficacy for prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and melanoma skin cell carcinomas. But it wasn’t until his own dog became sick with cancer that he really looked into whether or not this could work for veterinary patients.

After finding out that he successfully treated his own dog, we began to evaluate whether or not this type of vaccine could help other pets diagnosed with cancer.

From my perspective, I thought: If this vaccine could work for his dog, why couldn’t it work for others?

Immunotherapies are shaping how human cancers are treated. It makes perfect sense to provide innovative research to the veterinary market as well.

NAN: So, you developed the business concept when you were a graduate student.

ASHLEY: Right. In 2012, while I was pursuing my graduate studies at Notre Dame, I was part of the ESTEEM program that combined working in the lab with MBA classes. However, the thesis is a little different than a traditional master’s degree. In this program, the focus is determining whether the technology you are working on can be commercialized. I proved that we could.

Dr. Suckow was on board with my idea to participate in the year-long McCloskey business plan competition at Notre Dame. In the process, we got great feedback, which helped validate the business concept. We ended up winning second place. At that time, this whole concept was still just my thesis. This business plan competition was helping me understand that my thesis was viable.

The morning after the competition there was a line of investors waiting to meet with us. Dr. Suckow and I thought: Are we doing this? I remember he said, “Let’s do it. I will stand by you every step of the way.”

We formed the company right after that.

NAN: Did you always want to run your own company?

ASHLEY: When I was an undergrad at the University of Connecticut I started two other companies. That’s how I became involved in the Connecticut entrepreneurial ecosystem and met mentors Eric Knight, Founder and President of Remarkable Technologies and Kevin Bouley, President and CEO at Nerac.

I knew I liked entrepreneurship and I knew I liked business. Coming from a scientific background, unless you’re going to medical, dental, or veterinary school, or working in a lab, there aren’t a lot of options. That’s why I chose the program at Notre Dame. I love science. I love being in the lab. But I don’t want the lab to define my career.

The program at Notre Dame is cross functional. It’s designed to help mathematicians, scientists, and engineers bridge that gap to entrepreneurship. The science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) kids are going to be the ones to create entrepreneurial opportunities, so the goal is to provide them with foundational business knowledge.

NAN: I like that you recognized you needed that duality.

ASHLEY: It wasn’t that I went out to launch a company, it was just that I knew I had to drive to do it. And if it wasn’t for me and my tenacity, this idea would just be sitting on a shelf. Had someone else come along, with 20+ years of experience, maybe they wouldn’t have taken it this far, because it takes a lot of time. But I had that time to dedicate to something I really believe in.

I believe in the technology and the science. I believe in the patients we’ve helped so far to date. And I know we can help many more. It’s just the drive to get there. That’s what I bring to the table. If we are going to do it, I’m going to get it done!

NAN: Tell us something we don’t know about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. Any unexpected challenges?

ASHLEY: I think the biggest challenge is just having so much to get done in a day.

From an entrepreneurial standpoint, you’ve got to be gritty. You have to go out and get things done! Not to say I didn’t know that going into becoming an entrepreneur, but I think it’s the biggest difference between corporate work in America—this isn’t a 9-to-5 job. I’m living it and it’s up to me to make it happen. Now as we see ourselves growing rapidly, my biggest question is : How can I surround myself with other people who not only share my vision, but will help me get there?

I think that’s the most exciting part of being an entrepreneur. If you’re open to help, you’re open to receiving mentorship, and you have to drive, you will cross your finish line.

NAN: You and I met after you’d pitched at an event at the Technology Incubation Program. I noticed you articulated your message very clearly.

ASHLEY: Thanks! When you’re starting a business, you have to be pitching every day, every second. You never know who you’re going to meet and how that one resource to lead you to the next step.

I’ve pitched at Crossroads Venture Group events as well as at the TIP. We also were a winner of MassChallenge in 2017. In that process you’re pitching practically every day. You learn to refine your message.

And we have a strong message. We are helping pets with cancer. I can present our technology, but this is really just the beginning. We are going to be leaders in veterinary immunoncology with the trajectory we are heading in and the level of science we have and are moving into. So now it’s just a matter of getting more people involved and on board with us.

It’s taking our enthusiasm and translating it into accomplishments. I think that’s one of the biggest facets for a small company. What are you able to get done in a day? What can I check off my weekly to do list so that every single week I feel like I’ve accomplished something?

NAN: How did you end up at the TIP?

ASHLEY: I’m from Connecticut. I did my undergrad at the University of Connecticut and then I went to Notre Dame. I worked for Cook Biotech, which is based in Indiana. They’re our partners in this research. At Cook Biotech I worked directly under the CEO as an innovation intern. The concept was basically: Launch a company underneath us. Use the resources we have. We want to see this succeed.

I worked there for about a year, but at that point the startup had less than $30,000 in the bank. I had to figure out the best direction—do I pay myself a salary that’s only going to last a few months, or do I return home to Connecticut?

I was aware of the TIP and the labs here. It made sense for me to move back to Connecticut, take a job, and continue working on launching the startup. So, with that $30,000, we ran a clinical study on more than 100 patients. We launched to outside clinics in January 2017 and brought on significant capital to help us run the company.

NAN: What do you enjoy most about your involvement in the TIP?

ASHLEY: It’s exciting to be in this space with other startup founders who are dealing with similar issues. And a lot of them have become my mentors, like Mobile Sense Technologies CEO and Co-Founder Justin Chickles. He’s launched multiple products globally. I go to him and ask: Am I doing this right? What do you think about this? It’s great to have someone with that level of experience work right upstairs from my office.

And then we have access to world-class researchers at the University of Connecticut. We have multiple collaborations, so we’re able to tap into the experts and have access to additional shared lab equipment. Right now, we are focused on developing functional immunoassays in collaboration with multiple principal investigators at UConn.

NAN: Let’s talk a little about funding.

ASHLEY: We are funded through Connecticut Innovations, the UConn Innovation Fund, and some outside sources.

We just submitted our first Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We’re really excited about the proposal we put forward and the translatable abilities our research has from understanding how to treat veterinary cancer patients to human cancer patients.

The funding we have received to date goes to help grow the business, form strategic partnerships/collaborations, and helps move the needle for Connecticut and our company.

NAN: In terms of the future, where do you want to be one or two years from now?

ASHLEY: Determining the future is the fun part. Our goal is to be the leader in veterinary immuno-oncology. We feel we have a strong roadmap for success and a great team that can get us there.

In a year, we want to be working with more than 200 different independent veterinarians and we want to have treated more than 800 patients with cancer that are fully logged, monitored, and tracked in our database. We’ve helped well over 200 already, so we want to help 600 more by the end of next year.

In terms of two years, we are working on additional product launches that can further stimulate an effective anti-cancer immune response by leveraging knowledge already gained in the human field and bringing safe, affordable, and effective treatment modalities to veterinary patients. Our goal is to be on the dossier for major veterinary conferences talking about the science we are completing here at the TIP and how this science is going to be helping companion animals across the county.

NAN: Any advice for others who are thinking of launching startups?

ASHLEY: I think an important takeaway for young entrepreneurs is to be able to bootstrap for as long as you can to really understand your business. Then, when it makes the most sense, you can let go and jump in. That worked really well for us. It gave us time to understand our milestones and goals and get a lot accomplished before bringing on additional capital.

Also, I think that with a lot of hard work, a little bit of luck, and the help of amazing mentors, you can move mountains. With our company, everything was meant to happen for a reason. Every piece came into place at the right time, or the right person was connected to us through a mentor.

Being open to accepting help, listening to the guidance of mentors, and working hard to accomplish goals for the business are the best pieces of advice to launch a successful startup.

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