An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Amit Etkin (founder and CEO) of Alto Neuroscience, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of Alto Neuroscience – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
Alto Neuroscience was founded out of an immense need for innovation in mental health treatment. As a practicing physician and Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford, I was dismayed by the lack of progress in treating mental illness across decades. We desperately need both new medications and ways to harness their efficacy by making sure they target the right patient. At Alto, we are solving both of these challenges at the same time, pioneering a “precision psychiatry” approach that we hope will disrupt both drug development and clinical care at a time when change is most needed by patients.
Psychiatry, to this day, still operates through a trial-and-error approach, meaning that people with mental health conditions are given treatments developed without taking their unique biological differences into consideration. Medications are prescribed based on clinical observations and patients often cycle through therapies, hoping eventually one will work. This process can take time, and has dire consequences: the longer it takes to find a solution, the greater the personal suffering and more likely an individual is to give up on the process altogether. At Alto, we are developing a new generation of therapeutics using brain biomarkers that match each patient with the right Alto drug. We have 11 drug assets in our pipeline that target the unique biology of specific subgroups of patients. We’re currently evaluating three of these drugs in Phase 2 clinical trials, beginning in patients with depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
I took a huge personal risk giving up a tenured professorship to pursue the vision of applying my research at scale in the world at large, bootstrapping Alto from the ground up. Having no experience as a CEO entering the biopharma industry for the first time, I eagerly immersed myself in raising funds for the company, driving growth for Alto’s clinical efforts and R&D, bringing in 11 high-value clinical-stage drug assets, and building a team of highly capable people I trust to execute our mission. Persistence and iteration through the process have been the key to Alto’s success to date. In a business world faced with obstacles including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a rapidly growing mental health crisis, and the recent “Great Resignation”, I am proud to have been able to build our team in a hybrid (virtual + in-person) setting to create and advance the largest clinical-stage portfolio of medicines in precision psychiatry.
What does the future hold for Alto Neuroscience?
This is just the beginning for Alto, as we’re conducting parallel trials across multiple psychiatric conditions beginning with depression and PTSD over the next two years. By mid-2023, we anticipate having clinical data for each of our 11 drugs, resulting in a massive value inflection and the launch of multiple FDA registration-supportive studies. The felt impact of this pace on both Alto’s growth and performance, as well as our ultimate patient audience means that approval of precision medicines for mental health conditions is achievable in the near term.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Los Altos?
Los Altos is a tight-knit community great for families, working individuals, and businesses alike. The choice to have Alto’s headquarters based out of Los Altos was both convenient and strategic, and our team loves being integrated within the city as we’re walking distance from downtown. Los Altos is just minutes away from Silicon Valley’s top tech companies, Sand Hill Road’s venture capital funds, and leading universities flooded with talented individuals. As the startup scene continues to thrive in the Bay Area, I anticipate Los Altos continuing to grow in popularity with other tech startups given the friendly environment and proximity to key resources.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Learning isn’t linear. The world of academia, which defined much of my career up until now, lent itself to following a relatively understood path. First time founders and entrepreneurs can’t expect to follow such a defined trajectory and must, by nature of the job, take risks and learn in the trenches. If you have a disruptive idea, great. Now it’s time to get to work. Becoming a successful entrepreneur requires not only initial innovation, but constantly rethinking and questioning everything, followed by sustained commitment to execution. How invested are you in your “why”? It’s vital to have a clear mission that organizes operational and team efforts, catalyzing true collaboration towards a single purpose. Do you have the credibility to back up your idea? If not, who can you recruit to join your team? Deep expertise, paired with a strong sense of purpose and confidence in our vision, has been critical to my team’s success. Regarding team building and funding, actively leverage your existing network. Lastly, executing on a big vision requires a big swing. Commit to the follow-through, maintaining the goal of progress over perfection. The path of an entrepreneur surely isn’t linear, but it’s full of fruitful learning experiences – embrace them all and enjoy the ride.