The University of Chicago Program Links MBA Students and Scientists to Launch Startups

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Kidney stones can be incredibly painful and for many patients, have a tendency to come back. Using gut microbe research, startup Oxalo Therapeutics is developing a therapy to safely remove oxalate from the body and prevent recurrent kidney stones.

Oxalo’s work is to mimic a mechanism that naturally occurs in the body in order to prevent the recurrence of kidney stones. The company will also use its platform to explore therapeutics for other renal diseases that are caused by high levels of oxalate. While its product is still in the developmental phase, Oxalo has benefitted from an infusion of cash from the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago. The fledgling company, which is based on the research of University of Chicago assistant professor Dr. Hatim Hassan, snagged $250,000 in funding following a ride through the University of Chicago Innovation Fund program.

The University of Chicago’s Polsky Center is designed to set business students who have a mind to become entrepreneurs with scientists hoping to turn their research into a beneficial product. In the case of Oxalo, the Polsky Center created a team out of Hassan and Yang Zheng. Business-minded Zheng was not new to the biotech world. Before working with Hassan he launched a dietary supplement startup, served as the VP of Operations at an early-stage biotech company, and worked in venture capital – all before completing his MBA at the University of Chicago.  

Oxalo stands to gain even greater funding if it is selected to participate in the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge. Companies selected to participate in the challenge are invited to present to a panel of entrepreneurs and investors. If selected, Oxalo could gain up to $1 million in prize money and in-kind services for its kidney stone therapy.

In an interview with the University of Chicago News Zheng said the rigorous criteria for the New Venture Challenge allows entrepreneurs to become intimately familiar with your startup and allows you to compellingly “tell the story of your company to people that may or may not care, or may or may not be in your industry.” That’s a key to swaying investors to back a scientific vision.

The Innovation Fund is a multi-million-dollar fund that was established to invest in promising startups from an ecosystem that includes the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Fermilab, and the Marine Biological Laboratory, according to its website. The core mission of the Innovation Fund is to “help researchers turn their innovations into ventures that advance cutting-edge technologies, generate significant financial returns, and create lasting impact for humankind.” So far, the Innovation Fund has invested approximately $6 million in 56 startups, including Oxalo, as well as ImmunArtes, a biotech startup developing immunotherapeutics targeting staphylococcus aureus, and its antibiotic-resistant MRSA strains. Another fund recipient and a graduate of the Polsky Center is Clostrabio. The Chicago-based company secured $3.5 million in seed funding in January to support the development of food allergy therapies. The company is attempting to harness gut bacteria in order to create a barrier that stops allergens from entering the bloodstream.  

One other startup that the fund financed in 2017 is Onchilles Therapeutics, a preclinical-stage oncology company developing novel biologics for the treatment of cancer. The company, which secured $150,000 from the fund in 2017, believes its discoveries will enable the development of first-in-class medicines for a variety of cancers that are selective for cancer cells and non-toxic to normal cells and tissues, according to the Fund’s success stories section. 

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