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by Claire Stevenson
Graduate student in the Committee on Development, Regeneration and Stem Cell Biology

Two University of Chicago-based startups, Oxalo Therapeutics and ImmunArtes, recently beat out fierce competition to be chosen for MassChallenge Boston, a global start-up accelerator with a focus on high-impact entrepreneurs. With 1600 teams vying for a spot and an 8 percent acceptance rate, this was the most competitive year yet, so getting into the program says a lot about the excitement around these two companies.

MassChallenge is a not-for-profit accelerator that offers world-class programming. The vision of its founders is toward a “creative, inspired society in which everyone is empowered and has the resources to maximize their impact.” Through its flagship location in Boston, and many others worldwide, MassChallenge runs programs and draws teams from around the world.

A sought-after feature of MassChallenge is the opportunity to make connections with top corporate partners and build a network of expert mentors. The program culminates with teams competing for up to $1.5 million in cash prizes to help grow their businesses, but according to Yang Zheng, co-founder and COO of Oxalo Therapeutics, “the real prize is getting in the Challenge and all the connections you make.”

Oxalo and ImmunArtes both formed less than a year ago and have hit the ground running with investment from the University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Though Polsky’s Innovation Fund, Oxalo and ImmunArtes won $250,000 and $175,000, respectively, in new venture funding. Oxalo was also awarded $25,000 through the Polsky Center’s New Venture Challenge, the top university accelerator program in the nation. “Chicago is great for STEM and entrepreneurship,” noted Zheng. “The resources here helped us get to this stage.”

Oxalo Therapeutics is developing a first-in-class therapeutic to treat kidney stones, a painful condition that damages the kidneys and increases risk of chronic disease. Oxalo’s preventative drug, derived from a natural gut bacterium, will offer significant advantages over current treatment methods. The Oxalo team’s scientific lead is Hatim Hassan, MD, PhD, a UChicago nephrologist; Zheng, an MBA candidate at the UChicago Booth School of Business, leads the business side.

At MassChallenge Boston, Zheng is particularly excited about the relationships Oxalo is forming with new mentors. They are getting strategic advice about the condition they aim to treat and the drug development route they are pursuing. “The mentors are the biggest help so far,” he said.

ImmunArtes, Chicago’s other competitor, has developed a novel vaccine against staph infections, including the antibiotic resistant strain known as MRSA. Staph infections are a major issue in health care, yet no vaccine currently exists. The team at ImmunArtes, led by Olaf Schneewind, MD, PhD and Dominique Missiakas, PhD, both professors of microbiology at UChicago, has engineered a staph protein that will enable them to overcome hurdles faced by previous attempts at vaccine development.

ImmunArtes is benefiting from the excellent mentorship opportunities at MassChallenge Boston and a nice sense of community that the program provides. “It’s helpful to interact with the other teams and fun to see when you can help them,” notes Chloe Schneewind, manager of ImmunArtes’s communications at MassChallenge.

The team is learning a lot from their time in Boston, but they want to maintain their connection to the Midwest. “Chicago is important to the identity of the company,” Chloe emphasized. “Boston has an entrepreneurial culture and we want to bring this back to Chicago. The Midwest doesn’t yet have the biotech startup culture it deserves.”

But Chicago’s entrepreneurial reputation is growing. “There was a push to get Chicago companies involved in MassChallenge,” Zheng pointed out. “They recognize that there is good technology here, the strong research institutes are drivers [of that].”

A prime example of this is the Duchossois Family Institute, which is making paradigm-shifting investments to push discovery forward and build toward a future in which Chicago is on the map as a center for innovative biotechnology.