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How This Founder Developed Personalized Vaccines To Combat Pet Cancer

People

The future of immunotherapy in the veterinary space is changing in a great way!

Ashley Kalinauskas, the CEO and Founder of Torigen Pharmaceuticals can't help but think of how many pets they've saved since 2013. Both Kalinauskas and her team are ambitious and ready to continue to improve immunotherapy. Though it can be hard to think about, countless dogs and cats are diagnosed with cancer each year.


For pet owners, that can mean treatment options are limited because the location of veterinary oncologists, and it can cost thousands to get their pets back to their happy, healthy lives. Kalinauskas aims to save our furry friends from cancer and alongside her former professor, who has years of experience in personalized cancer treatments, she decided to make a business plan and bring this technology to market.

Now, five years later, Kalinauskas paints a picture of just how much she and her team at Torigen care about the pets they've positively impacted. On the wall of her office, based in Farmington, Connecticut, are a series of photos. Each photo represents the story of a pet that has been treated by Torigen's immunotherapy. “[Pet owners] send us every update; the veterinarians send us pictures and updates," she said. “That means the world to us that every single day we are coming in and we are making a difference." Seeing those pictures, and knowing their work has an impact keeps them going every day.
“That means the world to us, that every single day we are coming in we are making a difference,"

How did it begin?

Prior to the creation of Torigen, her former professor's dog developed cancer. It took time, patience and a lot of research to find a way to get rid of the tumor. Fortunately, he was able to treat his dog and was motivated to look into the veterinary market instead of the human one. “Being able to really take a portion of the patient's own tumor and create that into a series of vaccines really [allows] for the stimulation of the immune system," she explained. “When he analyzed his results against multiple tumor models like mammary carcinoma, ovarian, prostate, melanoma, he really saw the same results, that by utilizing an approach like this cancer vaccine, we're able to really drive down the overall rate of metastases, as well as reducing some of that tumor burden. The treatment is not chemotherapy or radiation. It's immunotherapy."[thb_image full_width="true" alignment="center" image="9774" img_size="full"]Torigen has been on a long road to success. From Kalinauskas' graduate thesis project at the University of Notre Dame to becoming a successful company that is getting recognized by leaders in the animal health field. “Building Torigen [was] a lot of hard work," she admitted. “I fell into this… I was doing research and then it became – 'hey, maybe I want to look into applying for the Notre Dame business plan competition." That was just what she did. After putting together a plan, and figuring out the company name, they entered the competition. She remembers it as a yearlong process. “At that point, we still didn't think we had a business," she said. “We thought we had a really great idea." And at that stage, she realized a lot went into building, running a company, and getting something out of the lab and into the market. “It wasn't until we placed second at the competition, and the next day we had a line of investors waiting to meet with us that my professor and I made the decision," she recalled. “We were like 'Alright! [It's] now or never! Are we doing this?' And we both said 'Let's go!'"

Pictured above, Torigen received an investment of $50,000. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Kalinauskas)

“It wasn't until we placed second at the competition, and the next day we had a line of investors waiting to meet with us that my professor and I made the decision," she recalled.

From that point on Kalinauskas was “the driver" behind Torigen. “I guess the founding and forming of Torigen was [built on] initiative, drive, and building a really strong team that has brought us to where we are," she shared. Vetivax, or as the CEO refers to as “V-VAX 001," is their product, which can be offered through veterinary clinics.

The experimental autologous cancer vaccine is regulated by the USDA Center for Veterinary Biologics. “We work with veterinarians and after a tumor gets surgically excised a portion can get sent into our laboratories," she explains. “Once here, we create the experimental therapeutic vaccine." Unlike chemotherapy, which Kalinauskas points out can range from $3,000 to $5,000 to start, the Vetivax treatment is about $1,500 through the veterinarian and veterinary clinic.“I guess the founding and forming of Torigen was [built on] initiative, drive, and building a really strong team that has brought us to where we are,"

Out of many recent success stories, there is one story she is constantly reminded of. There was a pet owner who frequently reached out to the Torigen team. “The pet had multiple recurrences of an oral squamous cell carcinoma, [which] was treated by a veterinary surgeon, and I think that we've just reached the date where this pet has exceeded the survival time that is expected," she recounted. In remembrance they had a celebration. “This was a really difficult tumor to treat and especially for what this pet had already gone through before coming to us," she continued. “That pet owner [was] just so happy that there [were] no more recurrences of this tumor after using our treatment."

It is that kind of dedication and care that also led Torigen to win the Animal Health Investment Forum Innovation Award. “That was awarded by the Kansas City Animal Investment Forum by industry leaders in the animal health space." She continued, “I think out of all the awards that we've gotten so far, this one is the one that means the most to us because it's really that stamp of approval by the industry that a company like ours, that's really focused on finding new cancer treatment options in the veterinary market is so needed in this space," she recalled happily. Along with her team, Kalinauskas has used her background in cancer research and cancer immunology, to change the way veterinarians use immunotherapy. “What's inspired me to do what I do is that you know, when you have a love for animals, and you're on the forefront of innovation, how can you make all of those pieces come together to drive and define how humans can be treated with cancer," she voiced.

In the years ahead, two of the main goals at Torigen are: building the team and expanding the company. “We are bringing on additional investment into the company, but what is making me so excited [is], I just finished writing the full outline of the beginning of a really cool grant proposal that we have with some amazing collaborators that I think will really allow us to push the forefront of what's being done on the human side of Immuno-Oncology, how that could be applied to the veterinary space, and how we can really allow it to move faster," Kalinauskas said. She hopes to bridge knowledge between the human market and veterinary market. “Animals, humans aside we both develop cancer [and] tumors," she noted. “Dog tumors are extremely similar to those of humans, so if we can successfully treat cancer in dogs with new modalities and new approaches, how can that research translate over to humans?"

On a personal level, Kalinauskas also hopes to inspire and mentor young women that intern at Torigen. “We have such a fabulous intern program, where interns work with us both in the summer and throughout the year," she said. “I'm excited about the potential for us, this May, to bring on three of those interns as full-time employees." Kalinauskas sees this as an opportunity to help undergrad students grow in their field before pursuing higher education. So far her interns have been women. “They're blowing their male competitors out the water because when there is an internship opportunity, they're hungry and they want it," she said. “If I had somebody that wanted it, regardless of their gender, of course, they would be at the top of my list, and so far it's only been girls." Kalinauskas believes that it not only gives them a strong background in science but also gets them involved in a small business, which allows them to become ingrained in what Torigen does.

3 Min Read
Business

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.