BioBoss

#07 - Ashley Kalinauskas: Founder and CEO of Torigen Pharma

May 29, 2019 John Simboli Season 1 Episode 7
BioBoss
#07 - Ashley Kalinauskas: Founder and CEO of Torigen Pharma
Chapters
BioBoss
#07 - Ashley Kalinauskas: Founder and CEO of Torigen Pharma
May 29, 2019 Season 1 Episode 7
John Simboli

"I'm helping build a technology and I'm helping lead an organization and I actually prefer putting founder on things than chief executive officer." 
- Ashley Kalinauskas, Founder and CEO of Torigen Pharma

Show Notes Transcript

"I'm helping build a technology and I'm helping lead an organization and I actually prefer putting founder on things than chief executive officer." 
- Ashley Kalinauskas, Founder and CEO of Torigen Pharma

John Simboli:

I'm here this morning talking with Ashley Kalinauskas, CEO of Torigen Pharmaceuticals. Ashley, how did you find yourself here at Torigen?

A. Kalinauskas:

A great question. And I would say that I didn't really find myself here at Torigen. It evolved into Torigen from my graduate research. My professor and I, from the University of Notre Dame, decided to launch Torigen together.

John Simboli:

How did you decide you wanted to lead a Biopharma company?

A. Kalinauskas:

I would say that it's the same with finding myself here, that I didn't necessarily decide that I wanted to lead a biopharmaceutical company, that it really just evolved into this occurring. And it became that, you know, I was the expert with our technology, alongside my professor, and I've kind of become really knowing so much about this field that it evolved into me leading.

John Simboli:

Did you see it coming at all? When that first discussion came up -- hmmm, maybe we should do this? Did you say, oh yeah, I was kind of thinking you might ask that? Or it was more like, well, that's interesting.

A. Kalinauskas:

I think it really was a step-wise approach. Like when we decided to start the company, we decided to launch Torigen. It started as a business plan and in a business plan competition. So I would say that really until we ended up placing really high in the business plan competition, we won second place, that we . . . Before then it was a graduate thesis. It was not a viable business plan or opportunity. So it kind of was a lot of little steps that helped put this together before we realized that this actually does have legs behind it and it was something that we could be really excited about.

Speaker 1:

What were you hoping to achieve that you could do here that maybe you couldn't do in another company?

A. Kalinauskas:

Well, I mean where at another company can a graduate student run with the technology and see exactly how you can be able to effectively position it? So I would say kind of a really big thing about Torigen is that the technology started as a human cancer immunotherapeutic potential. All of our preliminary mouse model studies were in prostate cancer, ovarian, melanoma, mammary cancer on all human. And the trajectory for the technology was a human trajectory. However, it really kind of became apparent when we asked how many pets get diagnosed with cancer, that it was astounding how big of a problem this was. So when you hear that 8 million companion animals each year are diagnosed with cancer in the United States, and that's a low estimate, with 50% of all dogs over the age of 10 dying from cancer. It's just this monumental problem that we're faced with, with our pets that we love so dearly. So it's being able to take this technology and now apply it to, we can actually help dogs with cancer, and cats as well. And that it just made a lot of sense. So I don't think you could have been able to do this at another company. You don't see Novartis, you know, deciding to launch something into canine every day. But you can do it in a startup realm.

John Simboli :

When someone who doesn't know your business but knows you, and maybe hasn't seen you for awhile says what are you doing now? I mean to say you're a CEO that's like, Huh, that's pretty cool. But they may not know exactly what you're doing. So when someone says, what's your job? What do you say?

A. Kalinauskas:

I think it depends on who it is. If someone asked me on a plane, what do you do? I just do science. If someone asked me that, you know, maybe someone I graduated with from high school, like, what are you up to now, Ashley,, I think I'd still say I do science. I'm 29, I'm modest and it's hard to say I am the founder and chief executive officer of a pharmaceutical company and we just raised 3.1 million dollars. I'm on the VC route. It's pretty daunting to tell your peers that. And you know, I think what my dad would say is probably completely different than what I would say. Where I currently stand is, I'm helping build a technology and I'm helping lead an organization and I actually prefer putting founder on things than chief executive officer. Not saying that I don't like the title or anything. I'm super proud of what I've accomplished and what I do. But I think it's like an age thing where I still feel like I want to be a founder,

John Simboli:

And you can be.

A. Kalinauskas:

I can be . . . I don't know. I can make any title I want. Chief yoga instructor, and you know, some days that's what it is.

John Simboli :

Founder is the kind of title you can carry for awhile.

A. Kalinauskas:

It's agnostic, and it allows me to also have more things that I accomplish throughout the day. You know, it's not just about managing and doing a managerial tasks. I'm on the ground because we're still a startup company. So if I need to assist in the lab, I'm assisting in the lab. If I have to go out and make a sales call, I'm making that sales call. So founder just fits better.

John Simboli:

You're making me think of when we first met. You and I were having a similar conversation and one of your colleagues came in the room and she had a vial and she put on a desk and you went right into a very specific science mode, which I didn't understand, but it had to do with a gradation within the tube and what you were seeing. And I thought that's interesting. This is someone who's in it on several levels.

A. Kalinauskas:

And I love it. I've loved knowing everything that we're doing. Not micro-managing it but I could jump into any project that we currently have on-going and be able to assist. So that's what's cool about a startup. One of the reasons why we had to move upstairs was because our old office was too far away from the rest of the team and by too far away it was an extra like 20 steps and that 20 steps meant they weren't coming to me with all of their questions and then it would all be back-ended either at the front of the day or at the back of the day. So it was like, you know what, let's just, let's just keep them coming. Let's answer as many questions or ask as many questions as we need to because we all need to come to the same answers together as a team.

John Simboli:

Yes, I can picture that long line outside your door.

A. Kalinauskas:

You don't even know.

John Simboli:

Can you remember what you thought your management style would be like and what you've learned your management style is? What works for you?

A. Kalinauskas:

I think I'm still evolving as to what my management style is, per se, and you know, read some books and really like learning about how other founders have been able to kind of take their team. But I really like empowering people that they can do whatever they are tasked with, that they can accomplish it and that they can achieve higher than they thought they originally did. So I think I, I like to be the manager of really positive effort and that we're all here for each other and that we are a team working through this. That all projects are not siloed, that they're really cross-functional.

John Simboli:

When I was eight or nine, as far as I can remember, I was, I was absolutely enthralled with being a baseball player. And I think most of us at that age, we had a kind of a simplified view of what we're going to do. And I suspect not too many people ended up being baseball players. But can you remember what your image, self image was that point and then does it have anything to do with what you're doing at this point?

A. Kalinauskas:

I wanted to be a doctor. So hands down, I wanted to go into medicine from as early as I can remember. And I think once I got to college that kind of changed the trajectory and changed that path. And I think, you know, there's a lot, a lot of student debt associated with going into medical school. So I think I was always really focused on science. And I think medicine and science go hand-in-hand and kind of once I got further and deeper into science, I have such a great love for it. But I also knew that I didn't want to be behind a bench every day. So it was being able to combine business with science. And I thought that I brought something that not a lot of people did. An eloquent way to describe complex science to the masses and be able to really get your hands dirty, work in the lab (actually really clean bench. So keep them very clean), but to be able to explain what we're doing and why it makes sense and why that's driving from a business perspective. So once I got a little older it was, I want to be, like, CEO of Novartis. So it's still on my radar. At Torigen we have a personalized cancer immunotherapy that helps animals with cancer. So after an animal gets diagnosed, a portion of their tumor is surgically resected and sent into our laboratories here. We then create the personalized immunotherapy that gets sent back to the veterinarian. So what's new at Torigen is that we've surpassed over 500 companion animals that we've now treated, to date. We've developed a really great tracking database so we can understand, monitor and log how those pets are doing. We have automated surveys that go out to our veterinarians for follow-up information so that we can figure out how is this dog doing, what's going on? Is there any intervention that we can do and we can discuss and consult about from the veterinarians on our team. What's also new is that we're really hiring, so from the scientific front, on our scientific development team to our production and vaccine creation and then also really starting to understand market development, as well. So I think all of those play players are kind of working right now and that we have some few openings at Torigen, as well, for new hires. So I think that exciting and scary in some ways. It started as a little organization and, not saying that we still aren't little or very little, but it's really great to hire these first few employees and watch things grow from there.

John Simboli:

As you described a moment ago, someone who gets satisfaction of seeing other people succeed. It must be really satisfying to be hiring those people as your people, your team.

A. Kalinauskas:

And I want to make sure that they're going to be set up for success. One of the critical hires I have to make right now is in marketing and more so, not necessarily marketing, but brand management. How are we positioning our brand? How are we positioning new products that we can potentially develop in the field, as well? And I guess one of the big things that I keep sitting back with is I need to make sure that that person can succeed in that role. So I need to be able to develop metrics or have really kind of strong deliverables that I'm expecting from them. So until I take the time to actually sit down and put down, here's what I think your next six months are going to look like, I can't hire someone for that role because that's destined for failure. If I don't lay it out for, here's what I need this person to accomplish.

John Simboli:

How many hours of sleep are you kidding?

A. Kalinauskas:

I aim for eight hours cause otherwise it's not a pretty sight in the morning. I've been a lot better with going home and actually disconnecting. I don't know if it works, but I try.

John Simboli:

Work-life balance. If you can model it, that's probably not a bad thing.

A. Kalinauskas:

My dog helps. I have to be home for him

John Simboli:

if someone says who's Torigen, how do you like to answer that?

A. Kalinauskas:

Torigen is a company that's focused on helping companion animals and developing really novel therapies in the veterinary cancer space that can really extend, potentially, beyond companion animals with the technology that we're developing. Positioning Torigen as a biologics company that because we play in the companion animal space, we're potentially able to provide really cutting-edge therapies that can accelerate development prior to getting to humans. When I think about Torigen, where we were two years ago to where we're going to be two years from now, I want us to be positioned as a leader here and as someone that can really take an idea and move faster with it.

John Simboli:

When you're making a presentation and you're talking to people afterwards, sometimes I'm sure people come to you and kind of play back to you what you said. And sometimes, I'm guessing, they come back to you and I say, Oh, I understand you're this kind of company with these kinds of goals and you're thinking yourself, they didn't get it. When they don't get it, what do they get wrong? What do you have to come back to them with and say, oh no, it's actually this.

A. Kalinauskas:

I mean we've had multiple times when we do our presentation and someone comes back and like, wow, you're curing cancer. And it's like, okay, wait, let's walk this back from both a regulatory perspective and from a scientific perspective, there is no cure for cancer. However, with our approach, when we take what went wrong, we feel that we have a really strong antigenic array of tumor targets that we could then provide back. And by doing so, it really allows us to have a strong platform of those antigens that we can then further build on in regards to future product development. The big thing they get wrong is like, oh, it's a cure. No, not a cure. However, can we prevent that tumor from coming back? Can we decrease the likelihood of potential for metastases and could we have that pet live longer? Those are all three possibilities that we're working to attain and achieve.

John Simboli:

And when you say that it does that satisfy those people who didn't get it?

A. Kalinauskas:

I think it depends if they're a scientist or not. I think there's some people that still walk away, "Oh, they're still carrying cancer. Oh, I try. I try. But I think it's about, from a scientific perspective, I, 100%, believe immunotherapy is the way that we need to go as a first line of defense against cancer. However, this is not going to work for everyone. It's not going to work for every pet. However, to have the potential for this working on early stage diseases is something that needs to be further investigated both on the companion animal side as well as on the human side.

John Simboli:

What kind of partners are a good fit Torigen?

A. Kalinauskas:

So I consider the veterinary clinics that we work with as a partner because there's no right answer for when a pet comes in with cancer. And I would say that the answer that we position for the veterinarians on our team is we want to tell the veterinarian this pet is not right for our therapy and provide the reasons why.. And I think that by doing so and saying, no, not this pet, this pet is better positioned with the heavy hitters, chemo and radiation, we not only build trust with that clinic, but they become that partner to us, of well, what about this one? Yes, this is a good one. This is an early stage disease, we were able to have a complete resection of the tumor. We have dirty margins and we have a measurable amount of tumor material that still has to be kind of cleaned up by the immune system. And, and being able to have those conversations with those veterinary clinics make them want to partner with us. So I think that's just such a valuable asset that we have. And something we're really working on expanding on is that we're consultative in our approach because every pet and every animal is different. And sometimes we get, and veterinary clinics, every day we call them the N of 1 cases, the cancer types that we can't find any literature about that this is a complete, a weird thing that this animal came in with and there is no right way to treat this pet. So what do we do and how can we work with that vet clinic as a partner?

John Simboli:

What kind of people do well at Torrington,

A. Kalinauskas:

Eager, hardworking, smart, ethical, problem solvers— are all people that are going to do really well here. If there's a roadblock, don't come to me with what that roadblock is, come to me and say, I think I have two options that I want to further explore. And then together we can make a really well informed decision, either by reaching out to our board, reaching out to our scientific team. We'll come to a conclusion but we can't come to a roadblock. So I think it's people who are willing to work really, really hard. So I know that's something that I do. Someone should be able to kind of pick up in a lot of different pieces as necessary and be willing to put in the extra work. This is still a startup company. I don't expect people to be here until nine o'clock at night, but on the times that we all have to be here until nine o'clock at night, cause we have a big deadline or deliverable, then we're all going to be here and we're going to work together and I'll buy everybody dinner. So, you know, it's like little things like that. It's not about putting in the hours, it's about actually getting it done. So if you get it done between nine to four, nine to three, even, I'm totally fine with that. But then no, there's some times we all have to work together to really get things done.

John Simboli:

After you've hired that person, you can observe and see if that's working or not working and make a decision. In that interview, how do you go about finding them? No one ever really knows, but how do you try to find out if that might be that kind of person you just described?

A. Kalinauskas:

So outside of one person, every other person that has been here was hired by the company in some sort of part time capacity. I think it is really important when you're making a hire that, you know they are going to be someone that is adding value to a small company. And I think the worst thing that I could do, or worst mistake I can make is hire someone that doesn't either fit with our culture or isn't going to put in the work. So every single person here, and again except one, has all been here in a part time capacity and that one person that wasn't here in a part time capacity is phenomenal and an extremely hard worker. We knew from right off the get-go that from the interviews that this was going to be a person that we could work with. And then also before that individual started, they were like, what can I do? Send me publications, I want to review this. What do you think about this? Perfect. That's what I need.

John Simboli:

Do you ever think to yourself, if this succeeds, I will have done some good and then try to think about, well what would that good be that I would do?

A. Kalinauskas:

I think every day, and I think that a lot of people come to us and they're like, this is a company that actually is doing good. Like it's so much cooler than my company. And we are doing good every single day because we're making a change in the lives of people and their pets because when a person calls us and they don't have any direction as to what do they do, we're going to be there to provide that direction and we're going to be there to provide kind of a network of contacts for them to reach out to. And you know, if the therapy extends the life of their dog by two days, two weeks, two months, two years, who am I to say that that time wasn't worthwhile for them to be with their pet before they decide to, that it's time. So, you know, I think that every day is a blessing that you have with your animal and cancer is a devastating diagnosis. And if we're able to make any divot in that and we're able to provide hope to that pet owner, that we're doing something and we have an option that is safe and can extend the life in cases then it's that hope that they're able to say, at least I tried something because unfortunately in veterinary medicine, 90% of pet owners do not have the option to try something. It's cost prohibitive. It's difficult to get to, the treatment options and there's adverse events associated with each of those. So it really becomes this cost benefit analysis that shouldn't be there. And with our therapy, we're able to work with the general practitioner in some cases and we're able to provide just a little bit more for that pet owner. So I think that every day is good.

John Simboli:

How did Torigen go about choosing Farmington as its place to be headquartered?

A. Kalinauskas:

I'm from Connecticut, I grew up in Connecticut. I'm a UCONN undergrad alum. And once I heard about TIP, saw the facilities, it was kind of like a no brainer that this is where we're going to be located. It was just a matter of time before we had the funding necessary in order to move in here. So TIP is the University of Connecticut's technology incubation program. There's multiple locations, Farmington, Storrs, as well as Avery Point and it offers lab spaces associated with the university. So I think right now it's between 30 to 40 companies that operate within the TIP community. And here in Farmington, I think it's almost 30.. So almost all of the companies are located here. We're on the campus of UCONN health and it's phenomenal. So the former chief scientific officer of Pfizer is across the hall and owns a company. So if you have a question, you'd go to your peers and you go to, well, he's definitely not my peer, but kind of is here. So, you know, we work together as, as kind of little groups and we also cross collaborate both with the university and between companies. So, every company here has a tie-in or affiliation with UCONN. It could be as small as we use this certain piece of equipment that we pay for versus, you know, we have a research relationship with one of the labs that we have a sponsored research agreement with. So it can vary, but it's so cool to be here. There's tons of events that go on. Just the other day, I think, the former president of a large pharmaceutical company was just walking around the hallway, talked to him, and he was able to make a connection for me. It's like things like that don't happen in the real world. So it's a really great place for us to be located and to grow into.

John Simboli:

Would you say that your reference point is primarily central Connecticut and the network you just described? Is it the corridor between here and say New York and Boston and Connecticut? Is it national? Is it international? I know you zoom in and out each day, I'm sure, but what's your focus?

A. Kalinauskas:

I think it depends. So the clinics that use us are nationwide.. We're also looking to establish a laboratory up in Canada. However, I would say that the primary investors and venture capital that we are associated with is between the New York to Boston corridor. So we're kind of right in the middle. It's great that I can go right in and out of Boston for a meeting. And then vice versa to New York.

John Simboli:

How about access to capital? How does that work here?

A. Kalinauskas:

I've found it to be really phenomenal. I think that Connecticut Innovations is a accelerator of being able to connect the dots between different funding sources within the state here, nationally, as well. And I have been extremely pleased, happy. And I guess maybe in one sense I was, didn't know how much capital that we actually had access to by being here. You always kind of think, oh no, tech has to be Silicon Valley. And of course all health care is up in Boston. Well not necessarily. We're really building something that's great here.

John Simboli:

In addition to Connecticut Innovations, which organizations are helpful to you and to Torigen in this area?

A. Kalinauskas:

We work a lot with the small Business Development Corporation. I do a lot with UCONN. Women in Bio is great. I don't even know if I can list all of them. But there's so many organizations that we're either affiliated with, we're involved with on the periphery. We go to a lot of different events and it's just a really great community to be here in Connecticut. I think BioCT is probably the aggregator of all of what's going on on a given day and it really helps facilitate connections. That's all you're looking for as you're starting a business. It's, who can you get connected with and how are those connections going to lead to the next, next one.

John Simboli:

I think about my sons who are interested in living in places where things are going on and one son lives in Montreal and maybe in the DC area. Central Connecticut is not that and yet you want young people, you want experienced people. How do you deal with that question?

A. Kalinauskas:

I think that there are plenty of great people here and I think that there's also some good things that attract young people to come back here. It's pretty lively. It's pretty fun. There's great job opportunities here. I think the cost of living in Connecticut is high, but not as high as DC, not as high as New York and not as high as San Francisco. There's plenty here and it's just about being able to find your niche. I think you could find your niche anywhere you decide to live. And, and from a company perspective, you know, we have, we have Yale, we have UCONN, we have the state schools here in Connecticut. Wow. Wesleyan, Trinity, ConnColl. There's really great feeder colleges out here that can really start, you know, if people are willing to stay, then there's jobs here, especially from a scientific perspective.

John Simboli:

Then there's the retention question too, right? I mean. I would think once you find your right people, you're more likely to hold on to them here.

A. Kalinauskas:

Well, one of my employees, her boyfriend moved from here out to San Diego and she convinced him to move back. So, you know, I think, I think San Diego is pretty tempting a place. However, there's, there's a lot going on here. So what is it, weather or opportunity?

John Simboli:

Thanks Ashley. I appreciate you spending time with me today.

A. Kalinauskas:

Thank you. Appreciate it, John.