Co-founder Shane Shahrestani didn't prepare for his first pitch at all—in fact, he didn't know it was going to happen. OTTCP Entrepreneur-in-Residence Julie Schoenfeld happened to be leading interested venture capitalists (VCs) on a tour of Caltech's research laboratories mid-2019. As he fielded questions and explained his concept to these visiting VCs, Shahrestani, who was conducting his PhD research in Dr. Yu-Chong Tai's lab, realized that there might be a real future for the technology.
As part of the USC-Caltech MD-PhD Program, Shahrestani began pursuing his Medical Engineering PhD at Caltech in 2018. Upon joining Dr. Tai's lab, he had been new to engineering. However, his neuroscience background gave him the inspiration to reconfigure aerospace circuits for a novel purpose: to find and track anomalies in blood movement in the brain. This application of the technology could provide a rapid and convenient way to keep constant track of stroke progression in patients, an improvement on the current standard of wheeling them through the hospital to get a new MRI scan every hour. Towards the end of 2018 to early 2019, Shahrestani and OTTCP's Licensing Team started the patent process for this technology, which would later become the basis of StrokeDx.
Shahrestani's first meeting with StrokeDx's now-CEO, Alex Ballatori, was equally serendipitous. Fellow med students, Ballatori and Shahrestani ended up as roommates in USC's assigned graduate housing in 2019. Happily, they not only got along but also worked well together. As Ballatori's specialty was orthopedics— "the spine is where orthopedics and neurosurgery meet"— they ended up researching and publishing between 30-40 papers on the spine together. The two drew attention as a team and were even asked to consult nonprofits together.
But the catalyst to launch StrokeDx came in 2021, when Schoenfeld reached back out to Shahrestani to tell him about the Caltech Seed Fund. This conversation prompted Shahrestani to consider establishing a startup more seriously. Asking Ballatori to join the endeavor made sense for him—besides the fact that the two had already proven to be effective partners, Ballatori had prior experience at a software startup in the Bay Area and was also familiar with the FDA process.
The duo quickly picked up momentum. Schoenfeld and her Life Science counterpart at the time, Helen McBride, Ballatori says, were "consistent soundboards for us when we were confused or had a million ideas." "Often both," laughs Shahrestani. The EIRs advised the StrokeDx founders every step of the way, and Ballatori figures that their guidance sped up StrokeDx's journey to launch by months.
OTTCP even helped connect StrokeDx to their eventual third employee, Brian Nguyen. Nguyen participated in OTTCP's summer internship in entrepreneurship program in 2022 and was StrokeDx's assigned intern for ten weeks. Nguyen threw himself enthusiastically into his role, despite its brevity, matching the energy, ingenuity, and focus of the thrilled and impressed company founders. In fact, after Nguyen's recent graduation this June, he immediately launched into his new role as Chief Technology Officer at StrokeDx.
Eventually, the StrokeDx team needed their own office space—and luckily, they already knew where to turn. Maral Gharib, Director of the Caltech Innovation Center (CIC), had already reached out to them, aware of the company through Schoenfeld. So when StrokeDx needed office space, they looked no further than the corner of South Chester and Del Mar, where the CIC is located. Launched in 2022, the CIC houses nascent startups, especially those licensing Caltech technology or affiliated with a Caltech lab.
In the short term, the team is working towards receiving FDA approval and validating their technology in a clinical trial. After that? The team hopes to see their equipment at work in hospitals in the not-so-distant future, helping to improve and expedite patient treatments, and ultimately save lives.
Caltech Laboratory: MEMS (micro-electromechanical system) Lab, Moore Laboratory Caltech
Professor: Yu-Chong Tai
Technology: Noninvasively measuring biological tissues and fluids to generate images of stroke patients
Founders: Shane Shahrestani (PhD ‘21), Alexander Ballatori