Finding creative ways to help others and utilize her science and business aspirations is not just what led Ashley Kalinauskas ’13 M.S. to Notre Dame’s ESTEEM Program in 2012; it is also what has helped her establish a company that is a leading team in the animal health market.
A few years prior to Kalinauskas’s enrollment in the program, Dr. Mark Suckow — a Notre Dame biology professor at the time — was developing personalized cancer vaccines. The first step in the ESTEEM Program — a master’s degree in engineering, science, and technology — is to determine which business avenue to pursue, so Kalinauskas had an interest in how to commercialize these products. In her first thesis meeting, Suckow told her about how the vaccines could be personalized in the veterinary market. What struck a chord with her, however, was her research following this meeting.
“I honestly did not know how many dogs got cancer,” Kalinauskas said. “After that meeting, I went back to Google and I was just astounded to see that over 50 percent of all dogs over the age of 10 die from cancer. And the vast majority of pet owners really are left with very limited options.”
The data on mortality rates in dogs motivated her to speed up the process. Before graduating with her degree, Kalinauskas realized they had the intellectual property and rat model data to bring the cancer vaccine straight into the veterinary market. She figured this would allow them to get a company going that could allow the project to move faster and provide help to these treasured companions.
After starting Torigen Pharmaceuticals while still at Notre Dame in 2013, Kalinauskas opened a lab at the University of Connecticut inside of their technology incubation program. She and her team of Dr. Suckow and two ESTEEM Program classmates secured funding from state groups and state venture capital groups. As the CEO of Torigen, she has taken her team from a small lab to occupying a whole corner of a building and has become a start-up leader in the animal health industry. In fact, Torigen was named the 2018 Animal Health Innovation of the Year and has raised over $6 million.
“It’s been amazing over the past couple of years to be able to see our growth. We help dogs with cancer, and we've treated over a thousand companion animals with our personalized cancer vaccines. But our company is now shifting to be so much more than the product. We really are looking to establish ourselves as leaders in the veterinary oncology market and creating a pipeline of different therapeutics that we can offer to the veterinary community.”
Kalinauskas’ passion is evident in the work she does for the company. In 2020, she was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list; in 2019, she was Connecticut Entrepreneur of the Year; and in 2017, she was honored as Emerging Pharmaceutical Executive of the Year.
Kalinauskas was also named to the 2020 Domer Dozen, an honor from the Notre Dame Alumni Association and its newest affinity group, YoungND. Last fall, Kalinauskas was one of 12 passionate alumni under the age of 32 chosen to be honored for their contributions in the areas of faith, service, learning and work, out of a pool of more than 140 nominations. The 2020 cohort was recently celebrated during a virtual award ceremony.
In 2021, Kalinauskas aims to hit their fundraising goal in the Series A round — the first significant venture-backed raise for a company — and license two additional products by Torigen over the next couple of months. She continues to establish partnerships to allow Torigen to meet its financial and scientific goals.
Kalinauskas continues to show her love for Notre Dame by giving lectures to ESTEEM students each year and meeting with them individually; volunteering on the advisory board for the IDEA Center and as a judge for McCloskey Business competition; and serving as a mentor to ND students. As Kalinauskas continues to make a difference in this industry, she employs the values she developed at Notre Dame.
“[Thinking] back to the University values of being a force for good in the world, I love being able to talk to a pet owner who just got a devastating diagnosis. Maybe we're not the best option for their pet, but by having that conversation, I feel like they are able to get one step closer to finding something that may work for them,” Kalinauskas says. “Each day, I feel like we're making a difference in the lives of pets and their owners, and that's something that I can't be happier about.”