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.
I have always been in love with all things art- I was obsessed with drawing and painting before I was even walking. In high school, I started a career selling art through various gallery art shows and on Etsy. I then went on to study fine arts at the University of Southern California, with an emphasis in painting, but took classes in ceramics, printmaking, cinema and architecture to get a really well-rounded education on all sorts of art.
During my senior year of college, my career path went through a huge transition; I started my own temporary tattoo brand, INKED by Dani, which is a brand of temporary tattoos based on my hand-drawn fine art designs.
The idea for the brand came one night after a themed party at college. My friends, knowing how much I loved drawing, asked me to cover them in hand-drawn doodles using eyeliner. The feedback from that night was overwhelming, everyone my friends saw that night was obsessed with the designs. In that moment, a lightbulb went off in my head... I could do some completely unique here and create chic temporary tattoos with an art-driven aesthetic, unlike anything else on the market. Other temporary tattoo brands were targeted to kids or lacked a sleek and millennial-driven look. It was a perfect pivot; I could utilize my fine arts training and tattoos as a new art medium to create a completely innovative brand.
Using the money I made from selling my artwork throughout high school and college, I funded the launch of INKED by Dani. I had always loved the look of dainty tattoos, but knew I could never commit to the real thing, and I knew my parents would kill me if I got a tattoo (I also knew that so many girls must have that same conflict). Starting INKED by Dani was a no-brainer.
I started off with a collection of about only 10 designs and sold them at sorority houses around USC. Our unique concept for on-trend and fashion-forward tattoos was spreading through word of mouth, and we quickly started growing an Instagram following. I was hustling all day from my room, cold calling retailers, sending blind samples and tons of emails, and trying to open up as many opportunities as I could.
Now, we're sold at over 10,000 retail locations (retailers include Target, Walmart, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and Hot Topic), and we've transformed temporary tattoos into a whole new form of wearable art.
My 4 best tips for starting your own business are:
- Just go with your gut! You'll never know what works until you try it. Go day by day and do everything in your power to work toward your goals. Be bold, but be sure to be thoughtful in your actions.
- Research your competitors and other successful brands in your category to determine how you can make your product stand out. Figure out where there is a need or hole in the market that your new offering or approach can fill.
- Don't spread yourself too thin. Delegate where possible, and stay focused each day on doing the best and most you can. Don't get too caught up in your end goal or the big picture to a point where it overwhelms or freezes you. You're already making a bold move to start something new, so try to prioritize what's important! I started off in the beginning hand packing every single tattoo pack that we sold and shipped. If I wanted to scale to align with the level of demand we were receiving, I needed to make the pivot to mass produce and relinquish the control of doing every step myself. I am a total perfectionist, so that was definitely hard! From that point on, overseeing production has been a huge part of my daily schedule, but by doing so I've been able to free up more time to focus on design, merchandising, and sales, allowing me to really focus on growing the business.
- Prioritize great product packaging and branding. It's so important to invest time in customer experience- how customers view and interact with your product. The packaging is just as important as the actual product inside! When we were starting off, we had high demand, and I definitely jumped the gun a bit on packaging so we could deliver product to the retailers when they wanted it. Since then, we've completely revamped the packaging into something upscale and unique that reflects what the brand is all about. Our product packaging is always called out as being one of our retailers' and customers' favorite part of our product!