In 2020, Robin Mansukhani (CWR ’05), CEO of Deciduous Therapeutics, was surprised when he received a cold call from Michael Goldberg, executive director of the Veale Institute for Entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve University. Mansukhani was just buttoning up a time-intensive Series A fund raising round for his early-stage startup.
“Michael explained that the Veale Institute had a new funding mechanism for startups, the CWRU Alumni Venture Fund. My first inclination was to pass; our fundraising round was well-baked. As we talked, I became open to the idea of having CWRU on our cap table.”
Mansukhani’s relationship with CWRU goes back 20 years when he was still a high school student in Pittsburgh considering colleges. He had narrowed his list down to two top-tier universities, Carnegie Mellon and CWRU. Preferring to leave his hometown, he was attracted to CWRU’s reputation as being academically intense. “CWRU drives you harder than an Ivy League school, which is better for you in the long run.”
Mansukhani’s decision was made. He graduated from CWRU in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and a decision to do what he wanted to do and not what he was compelled to do. That decision led him to become an investor, serial entrepreneur and advisor to other startups. From 2006 until 2018, Mansukhani founded or co-founded five companies.
But it’s his current company, Deciduous Therapeutics, that not only has tremendous potential to impact millions and millions of lives but is fueled by a personal passion.
“I saw my grandmother suffer through heart disease and then dementia in her final years. That was the largest push in wanting to work first on Alzheimer's and then as I thought more about it, I realized it wasn't just dementia I wanted to work on. I wanted to work on ways to promote systemic improvements in health span. Deciduous's work is focused on exactly that,” he explains.
Mansukhani co-founded Deciduous Therapeutics, a startup developing novel immunotherapies to treat age-related diseases. The idea behind it is to redefine the measure of good health over a person’s lifespan. “Good health is not how long we live but how well we live. Look at many senior citizens who suffer from a myriad of health issues. The mechanism of aging naturally contributes to the decline of one’s health. Quality of life suffers,” he explains.
At the core is a decline in the presence of killer T cells, a type of immune cell that can kill certain cells, including foreign cells, cancer cells and cells infected with a virus. When killer T cells are no longer active, “nasty” cells accumulate causing inflammation, tissue degradation in organs, cancer, and a host of other aging-related condition. What Deciduous Therapeutics has done is figured out a way to reactivate killer T cells and thus reactivate a person’s immune system so the body’s own protective powers work again.
The idea came out of a laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco. Mansukhani and his co-founder(s) licensed the method of action and used it create a lead molecule to formulate new drugs that address age-related health issues like heart disease, metabolic diseases, neurological disorders, eye diseases, and muscular dystrophy . Deciduous Therapeutics is now scaling up through FDA requisites in advance of clinical trials. Animal data shows it works.
“Our approach is novel. We’re using the immune system as nature intended,” he says.
Bringing new therapeutics to market is capital intensive. In two phases of a seed round, Mansukhani succeeded in raising $17 million. He knew better than anyone else, it was just a start. And he agreed to participate in the CWRU’s Alumni Venture Fund.
Goldberg wasn’t the only one pleased that Deciduous Therapeutics would be considered for funding. Ammar Kazi (CWR ‘22), a student fellow with the Alumni Venture Fund, was excited about playing a leading role in the due diligence process. Throughout high school, Kazi had dreamed of becoming a physician and channeled all of his energy into making it happen. He shadowed doctors, volunteered in hospital, and applied to CWRU because of the reputation of its medical school, research program and affiliation with the Cleveland Clinic.
Says Kazi, “I was obsessed with longevity and aging. There had been multiple cases of cancer in my family. I kept up to date on research and companies in the space. It was my passion.”
Once at CWRU, Kazi developed a new passion: entrepreneurship and startups, particularly in the biomedical space. “I saw how scrappy and mission-motivated people in the entrepreneurship ecosystem are, and that appealed to me. More importantly, I considered impact. A physician impacts one person at a time. A successful biotech or therapeutic company could potentially impact millions of people.”
He adds, “I saw that I could be part of that story. It felt cool to be part of what the future of healthcare could be.”
Kazi ultimately changed his major to economics and became deeply involved in organizations off campus and at CWRU to learn more about entrepreneurship and company formation. One of the first he joined was Hesiod Financial, an investment fund led by a collective of college students. Founded at CWRU, Princeton University and Colorado College, Hesiod gives members hands-on experience with investing.
During the summer between his junior and senior year, Kazi completed a Veale Institute Remote Entrepreneurship Project internship in venture capital with Refinery Ventures in Cincinnati. He helped the founder with sourcing seed investments in the energy sector. But his most important experience was with the CWRU Alumni Venture Fund.
“I was able to get involved with the Alumni Venture Fund from the get-go,” he says. “I did everything from combing through Crunchbase and LinkedIn for alumni founders to creating a fundraising deck, to creating processes and selecting CRM software, to working with a team of business and medical students. It motivated me to keep learning,” Kazi says.
When Deciduous Therapeutics agreed to participate in the Alumni Venture Fund’s due diligence process, Goldberg tapped Kazi to lead the student team. Kazi was up to the task but also sympathetic to the time constraints of Mansukhani and the Deciduous Therapeutics leadership team. “Fundraising is very time consuming and distracting for entrepreneurs. In due diligence, there are thousands of things to do. We wanted to be fast and frictionless for entrepreneurs,” he says.
Because there was limited access to Mansukhani, Kazi did extensive reading of the company’s research papers. He interviewed a CWRU expert in pathology, called the Cleveland Clinic and spoke with experts there, and also talked with others who had already invested in Deciduous Therapeutics.
“What really struck a chord was meeting with a biotech investor who focused exclusively on longevity-based startups. He had invested in 23andMe, an early company in the longevity space, and now Deciduous Therapeutics. I concluded that Robin’s startup had a unique and interesting way to solve the problem that no one was else was doing.”
When it was time to decide whether or not to fund Deciduous Therapeutics, Kazi and fellow students gave the company a thumbs up for funding, while still recognizing the risks of an early-stage therapeutics company. Faculty advisors approved the students’ recommendation, funding Deciduous WHEN.
“Deciduous checked many boxes for me. First, Robin is an amazing founder who has assembled a strong team of industry leaders. Their unique approach sets them apart from others in the longevity therapeutics space. Their discovery is patented. I was also impressed with their investors,” he says.
Mansukhani was impressed with the Alumni Venture Fund’s process, but particularly with Kazi. “Ammar was hungry, and he hustled. This experience will help him and the other students in the future whether they go on to be investors or startup founders.”
For his part, Kazi is now a CWRU alumnus and an associate with the North Carolina venture capital firm, Truebridge Capital Partners. “Entrepreneurship and the opportunity to have impact at scale is what motivates me. My message to other CWRU students is if you’re interested in technology and the power of entrepreneurship, give the Veale Institute and the CWRU Alumni Venture Fund a shot. It’s great to try new things.”
Written by Melanie Lux