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Murat Kalayoglu ’94, PhD’98, MD’00

Murat Kalayoglu’s career springs from the heart of the Wisconsin Idea — or maybe from its liver. A founder of HealthHonors Corporation and now president and CEO of Topokine Therapeutics, Kalayoglu has done research at Harvard and now lives outside Washington, D.C., but he credits his success to the opportunities that the UW gave him.

March 01, 2013

2013 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW majors: Medical Microbiology and Medicine
Age: 39 • Silver Spring, Maryland
President and CEO, Topokine Therapeutics

Murat Kalayoglu's career springs from the heart of the Wisconsin Idea — or maybe from its liver. A founder of HealthHonors Corporation and now president and CEO of Topokine Therapeutics, Kalayoglu has done research at Harvard and now lives outside Washington, D.C., but he credits his success to the opportunities that the UW gave him.

A native of Turkey, Kalayoglu came to Madison when his father, Munci, joined the School of Medicine's faculty in 1983 and helped establish the university's liver transplant program. Munci had applied to — and been rejected by — several American teaching hospitals before Folkert Belzer, the UW's chair of surgery, hired him, and the Kalayoglus have been Badgers ever since.

Murat began doing research in the lab of Gerry Byrne in medical microbiology and immunology after his first year on campus.

"Gerry gave me — a freshman undergraduate — my own research project, allowed me to participate in lab and departmental meetings, and met with me one-on-one," Kalayoglu says. "That a busy investigator at a large university would give an 18-year-old his time and a chance to do real research is a testament to the investigator, his department and the university. I was hooked."

Kalayoglu enrolled in the UW's combined MD/PhD program and eventually became an ophthalmologist. After doing retina research at Harvard University, he earned an MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management in 2006. Then he and colleague Michael Singer launched HealthHonors, a company based on the science of behavior change. Using algorithms, HealthHonors created what it called Personal Reinforcement Plans to help people adhere to healthy behaviors.

In 2009, HealthHonors was acquired by the wellness-improvement company Healthways, and in 2010, Kalayoglu launched another venture, Topokine Therapeutics. The company develops what it calls adipomodulatory compounds — that is, chemicals designed to alter fat cells. One of its first compounds, XAF5 Gel, entered clinical trials in November.

Asked what he plans to do next, Kalayoglu says his long-term passion is oncology, and he aims to use his combination of medical and entrepreneurial skills to help more cancer patients get better faster.

"We're at a point in our understanding of cancer biology that will lead to the rapid development of new therapeutic candidates," he says. "My hope is to help contribute to the effort so that we can get more and better therapies to market, and get them there faster."

In his own words

Who is your hero? Who or what inspires you?
Dr. Suman Thapa. Suman is a Nepali ophthalmologist who I met in Tilganga Eye Centre in Kathmandu in 2003. Suman is truly an inspiration, and his passion for life and his work is infectious. His mission is to eradicate glaucoma in Nepal. He works tirelessly toward his goal, and he and his colleagues have made tremendous progress over the 10 years since I've known him.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
Bob Jones, former CEO of Vitasoy USA (and a lecturer at MIT), told me that there are only two rules I needed to remember in starting and growing companies (and in sales in general): "1. Find out what your customer wants, and 2. Give it to him." This simple rule is so often forgotten.

What's your favorite quote?
"Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as 'I' or 'mine.'" This simple gem of a quote is attributed to the Buddha, and I try to instill the concept often in my children.

What's next for you?
I've found my calling in drug development. Our current company focuses on adipose (fat) biology, which is fascinating. But my long-term passion is oncology. As a civilization, we're at a point in our understanding of cancer biology that will lead to an accelerating and rapid development of new therapeutic candidates. My hope is to help contribute to the effort so that we can get more and better therapies to market, and get them there faster.

Are you a cat person or a dog person?
Definitely dog — I'm allergic to cats. I had a dog growing up in Madison. His name was Topsy, and he was a good boy.

What five items would you take to a desert island?
My wife, Kid #1, Kid #2, my laptop and my smartphone with 4G and tethering capabilities. That's all I need for a long, long time.

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