Valkyr: Treating Autoimmune Diseases Creatively

Autoimmune diseases trick the body’s immune system into attacking its own healthy cells. These diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, eczema, celiac disease and lupus, account for a combined $100 billion in annual U.S. healthcare costs. Current treatments for these autoimmune diseases are ineffective because they cannot target the compromised immune cells with enough specificity or effectiveness.

 

Two Dartmouth students are looking to tackle this monumental problem in healthcare. Meet Jayanth “Jay” Batchu ‘18 Th’19 and Brenda Miao ‘19. Valkyr, their startup, seeks to develop a “targeted therapeutic platform that selectively removes autoreactive immune cells – reducing side effects and potentially increasing treatment efficacy.” Valkyr’s secret weapon is a targeted cell therapy platform that leverages healthy immune cells and essentially reprograms them to target and kill a specific type of cell. This technique has already been developed and used for cancer treatment, but it has not yet entered the autoimmune space. The pair are currently working with faculty at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) to specifically adapt the technique to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

 

Both Batchu and Miao have backgrounds in biomedical engineering. Miao previously conducted autoimmune disease research and Batchu has worked with cancer cell therapy. Last fall, they decided to combine their skillsets to address this unique health problem. Both also have interests in entrepreneurship. Batchu chose Dartmouth over Johns Hopkins because of the many entrepreneurial support and networking resources available through the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship and the Tuck School of Business. Batchu and Miao were both members of the new TuckLAB entrepreneurship program at the Tuck School this past winter where they put forth Valkyr as their venture idea in the program’s entrepreneurship challenge and ultimately won the final competition.

 

As a biotechnology startup, Valkyr is still in its very early stages: pre-revenue, pre-funding, and pre-clinical. The general lifecycle for startups in this space is typically much longer than the countless, fast paced startups in the software industry. Biotech startups pose unique challenges for entrepreneurs due to the high upfront costs needed for scientific research and the high risk of failure. Batchu believes that it is “like buying a lottery ticket.” One option for many startups in this space is to pursue partnerships with Contract Research Organizations (CROs) that provide the necessary funds in exchange for startup equity. Valkyr has already received funding from the DEN and Tuck School of Business but is currently looking to raise more capital through cultivating such partnerships. In the end, the ultimate goal for most startups in the biotech space is to be acquired by a larger pharmaceutical company with the resources to bring the treatment to market.

 

One business challenge Batchu is trying to address is Valkyr’s pricing strategy. From discussions with a Tuck professor, Batchu explains that the price of Valkyr’s product essentially varies from day to day based on the progress of the pre-clinical research. Figuring out this strategy is important for determining an accurate valuation of the company that can be presented to potential partners or investors. Batchu predicts that ultimately, the price of Valkyr’s product will be similar to existing cancer cell therapies.

 

Valkyr is still years away from clinical trials and Batchu and Miao will likely face many more challenges along the way. However, with the many resources available at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Magnuson Center and Tuck School, the pair is hopeful that their work will eventually make it to the market and revolutionize the treatment of autoimmune diseases.