Admetsys founder: Be creative with funding

SWEET SUCCESS: Jeff Valk, co-founder and CEO of Admetsys, has spent years developing the relationships necessary to scale the medical device company’s automated glucose monitoring system for treating diabetes in the hospital setting. PHOTO PROVIDED BY ADMETSYS. 


BOSTON—Some days, no doubt, entrepreneurship feels like being a rodent on a wheel. But Jeff Valk might be the first to see it as a competitive advantage.

“When I was a kid, my sister had a hamster and we had a Habitrail,” says Valk, CEO and co-founder of Admetsys, a medical device company that has developed an artificial pancreas to treat diabetes. “Once a week, I’d rearrange the cage. The hamster had to deal with her poor little fuzzy world being upended. She would go nuts, but she lived to be three or four years old,” he recalls.

“Success as an entrepreneur means you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. (Your environment) changes and you think, ‘oh no,’ but at a certain point, your brain now has a mechanism to understand,” he says.

Valk admits there was much he didn’t understand when he and his father, Tim, went into the lab to create the first hospital-based automated glucose control system. They emerged with a fully engineered prototype and clinical data. “But then we realized, we had no connections—none whatsoever,” he says.

Valk wasn’t based in Boston, though his co-founder, Glenn Robertelli, was. “I packed for two weeks and ended up staying four months,” he says. “I totally underestimated the impact of the community here.”

Through MassChallenge 2014 and many other pitching comps, Valk—a naturally personable, talkative entrepreneur—says they were able to get Admetsys known. The company’s list of awards and accelerators does reveal a who’s-who in American biotech, evidencing a team that has made the rounds.

“If someone handed me the mic at a middle school assembly, I’d pitch. It got ridiculous,” Valk says, laughing. “But really, go out with a lot of humility, take the mic and tell people what you’re doing over and over till you’re not-unknown. That was our story for a year and a half.”

In June, the company took in an undisclosed investment amount from T1D Exchange on its way to a larger Series A, timed with their regulatory approval. But Valk says, in the early days, they didn’t understand the financing landscape at all. “If you want to raise a $30 million growth round, the world is your oyster, but if you want a $5 million seed round, God help you.”

The key for Admetsys was finding creative ways to fill in financial gaps. “The way you orchestrate the funding, you really do have to think laterally. What can you do to get the company to the position where your story is in the mainstream?” he asks.

Although he found that aligning company strategy with the market was not always the most comfortable position, Valk says taking that path paid off. “Being in people’s mental model of the space is the prize.”

Raising funds from T1D Exchange, a nonprofit focused solely on accelerating solutions to Type 1 diabetes, was the result of a relationship nurtured over time, after participating in one of the group’s startup challenges.

“Type 1 is an important piece of the story for us,” Valk says. “It’s a condition that does predispose people to hospitalization. Even if their daily care is excellent, that can be undone when they’re in the hospital. So making sure those folks have access to the best standard of care when they’re there is really important. Enabling this is part of our fundamental technology—something that could advance what we’re looking at. The conversation had enough commonality that we could come together on this,” he says of the investment.

Unlike other FDA-approved monitors, Admetsys’ system measures a patient’s blood sugar for highs and lows, and automatically treats through IV with either insulin or glucose when necessary. “It automates inpatient diabetic care,” he says.

More than 422 million adults around the world now have diabetes. With the cost of diabetes treatment cresting at $825 billion globally, the impact of the disease is significant. According to 2016 research out of the Imperial College London, with participation from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the United States stands only second to China in annual cost of diabetes treatment, estimated at $105 billion. Valk’s numbers say treatment accounts for 43 percent of the cost of total inpatient care in hospitals nationwide—so finding solutions is critical.

“We’ve done three individual protocols, and (treated) about 50 patients, 6,500 data points across the three clinical trials; it’s a good bit. In medical devices, that’s a fairly robust body of evidence,” Valk says. The team has two more clinical trials currently under way as well, all under an investigational device exemption. “We’ve got more clinical work to do. The FDA is going to require some more work from us to get cleared here (in the United States). We are looking at CE marking the beginning of next year—that will be a big milestone for us.”

They’re also working on perfecting their supply chain, with plans for their first manufacturing line going live in Taiwan this month, “so we can do it with repeatable process and the right economics.”

Now the team of 12 (a mix of full- and part-timers) is taking its leave from the Innovation District, and growing into new digs on Harrison Avenue. It’s been a long road since they started in 2012, but “at this point, we can all read each other’s minds,” Valk says.

“You have days where people tell you you’re changing the world and days where they tell you you’re going to crash and burn. It is a roller coaster,” he says. “You can’t let yourself be too affected by it.”

With any luck, some new influence will rearrange the cage again soon, anyway. “You just have to live to tell the tale.”

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Maternova makes Zika protection clothing a priority

Female Founder of the Week (FFoW) is a weekly celebration of the Boston-connected women who are building businesses that drive change around the world. Meg Wirth and Allyson Cote, founders of Maternova, take this week’s honors for addressing Zika, the deadly virus putting women, girls and newborns at risk globally.


With news of Zika virus ripping through communities around the world, and landing most recently on U.S. soil in Florida, fear continues to grow exponentially.

Since the World Health Organization declared Zika a health emergency in February, the numbers of pregnant women and newborns affected globally have increased 20 times, according to the WHO report, One year into Zika Outbreak.

Zika has been linked to a significant increase in newborn microcephaly—a terrifying birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected, due to improper brain development, according to a recent New England Journal of Medicine report.

There is no cure, and there is no vaccine, but there is Maternova—working on the front lines to source a solution, in the form of Zika-proof clothing for girls, women, and expecting mothers.

Maternova is well known to the Boston ecosystem as MassChallenge 2011 finalists, and founders Meg Wirth and Allyson Cote remain “deadly serious” about providing medical devices and diagnostics to improve outcomes for pregnant women and newborns around the world.

“How do women walking around in their everyday lives protect themselves (from Zika and other mosquito-borne illness), who are maybe washing clothes in a stream, or walking to market?” asks Wirth in an interview with FoundersWire. “The more we researched and heard from the field, the more the impact of malaria and dengue were very much on our radar. Then Zika came along. It has become very scary, so it just hit right where we were working,” she says.

The Providence-based team partnered with Alessandra Gold, a friend, former co-founder in Cote’s previous company and well-known designer from Brazil—a country more ravaged by Zika than any other—to create a line of protective clothing to stave off potential bites.

Zika attacks pregnant women in their first trimester—far more than the average population—but the virus often isn’t detected until after childbirth, or until nearly the third trimester, Cote says. “(Expecting mothers) are more likely to be bitten, it’s the increase in blood volume and hormones,” she explains, “so it’s that important. We need to get this solution into the field and we can’t wait.”

Maternova, known for sourcing crucial medical technology and distributing it to the neediest mother-and-newborn communities through its 15,000 partnerships, saw Zika as a dire situation. They also recognized that no one else was approaching a solution through apparel, which presented a unique opportunity.

“We actually do think of our Zika protection as a medical device,” says Wirth. “We’re already working on how to protect pregnant women from risks, and we had already been looking at rapid diagnostics in the field, so you could test whether women had Zika.”

Around that time, they discovered CAMTech (Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies), a collaborative platform based out of Massachusetts General Hospital that identifies medical challenges and fast-tracks impactful, commercially viable solutions, was hosting a Zika innovation hackathon in partnership with Grand Challenges Canada.

“None of the other ideas or teams were focused on apparel. We really focused on the idea of having something protective that women will want to wear,” says Wirth. “Just because you’re a poor girl in El Salvador doesn’t mean you don’t want to wear something stylish and attractive.”

The team was one of six that pocketed $19,000 American ($25k Canadian) in May, to set the wheels in motion—and the only one focused on apparel as a possible stopgap. Though fashion may seem a less lofty driver in the face of deadly disease, Wirth and Cote see it as crucial to removing barriers to adherence.

“(The clothing) had to be safe for pregnant women—the standard repellant is not safe for them,” says Cote. “So we had to source the fabric (with safe repellant imbued into the fibers). And now we have clothing that’s being specifically designed and manufactured as gorgeous and affordable, that’s going to save lives.

“We don’t want women to look like they’re being punished by wearing this,” she says.

They focused on Zika-proof clothing as a means of empowerment for those most at risk. “We are very good at taking technologies that are quite far along and proven, and helping them get to market in creative ways,” Wirth continues. “That’s exemplified in the Zika apparel, where we are putting together fashion, nanotechnology and our existing global distribution.”

The virus, carried by a type of mosquito called Aedes, is known informally as the tiger mosquito. This deadly pest has adapted to city life and rapid urban growth, where the population increase has outpaced the city’s ability to maintain infrastructure such as piped water and sanitation. Inside homes, they breed easily in toilet tanks, flower vases, even pet water bowls. Without piped water, the poor are especially vulnerable, forced to store water in containers, creating a deadly multiplier on mosquito proliferation in their own homes, and increasing their risk of infection.

“Pregnancy is a vulnerable time, even under the best of circumstances,” says Cote. “These poor women, it’s like roulette every day you walk outside your house. Unless you are wealthy, you don’t even have window screens.”

Maternova was chosen by Republic to fund its newest initiative on the just-launched crowd-funding platform. “Republic focuses on women entrepreneurs and impact,” says Wirth, “and we are one of eight startups they chose to launch with. We were asked to be part of their launch, which was absolutely amazing.”

Republic, built by AngelList alums and ushering in the new age of post-JOBS crowd-funding regulations, gives mission-focused founders information, community support, and access to high-profile advisors and high net-worth investors, according to its web site.

Maternova’s clothing line is already eagerly anticipated on the front lines, they say.

“We’ve already gotten requests to make community health worker uniforms that protect from mosquito-borne diseases, like for midwives going out into the community,” Wirth says. “The midwives really are the heroes in this whole thing, because they do the work of delivering the next generation in many countries.”

Maternova’s clothing not only repels Zika, but addresses other high-risk mosquito-borne illness, they say. “We heard from the field that they were terrified of Zika, and dengue has proven to be just as malevolent,” says Cote. “So our fabric protects against 40 different insects (including Lyme-carrying ticks). We are looking to be a single source of protection in an attractive way.”

Where Zika has just infiltrated the United States, Lyme has already had deep effects on the U.S. population, with more than 30,000 cases reported to the CDC each year. “Chronic lyme can be physically devastating, which is how we know (our clothing) would appeal to women here,” Cote says.

The company’s current plan is to manufacture in Brazil, introduce the clothing line here in the United States, to generate interest and support, then distribute lower-cost versions around the world. “U.S. women will not only appreciate the design, but also see and support the cause,” Cote says. “Motherhood is a common bond. The threat may not be identical—each population has a unique threat—but this will protect you.”

They are sourcing high-quality, wearable and functional fabric, Cote says, which ultimately will be a smart investment, because pieces can be washed more than 50 times without losing their protective qualities.  “(Microcephaly is) a devastating consequence, because it’s something that cannot be fixed,” Cote says, “so we need to cut it off. We have to get these out into the field because not only do women need them, Meg and I have fought tooth and nail, and bootstrapped this. It’s something we are extremely committed to seeing through.”

With the advent of Zika, the Maternova team sees an opportunity to educate the population. “Maternal health and the wellbeing of pregnant women is what drives what we do,” Wirth says, “because we believe it drives societies. With Zika, because it is new and an immediate threat, it brings attention to maternal health across the foreground.

“For us, it’s a way to help and offer protection, not just for Zika, but for all vulnerabilities that affect women in the United States, Latin America and around the world,” she says.

“We can’t wait for a vaccine to come on the market,” says Cote. “That’s why the Republic campaign is so important—we can’t get it done fast enough at this point.”

Want to support this innovative company? Find out if you’re qualified to invest in Maternova through the Republic campaign HERE.