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.
By SHELAGH BRALEY
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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