From MBC Winner to Y Combinator

Shannon Beeman
February 28, 2020

Walker McHugh, MSE ’17

CoFounder, PreDxion Bio

Some people fall in love with finance or management or even entrepreneurship. Walker McHugh, MSE ’17, fell in love with the immune system.
When Walker was a freshman, he met Dr. Timothy Cornell, a critical care physician at U-M. Together, they discussed the strange tendency of the immune system to sometimes work against the body. Ordinarily, the immune system fights off infection or threats so that the body recovers. But sometimes the immune system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, and the person becomes critically ill—not because of the original trauma or illness, but because of the body’s response to it. Doctors often need to be able tomake quick decisions about care, but might not have the insight they need about what is causing that patient to be so sick quickly enough.
“One thing led to another, and we ended up developing new technologies to be able to understand that immune system quicker and with greater resolution,” Walker said.
The technology had a breakthrough of its own: a few days before Christmas, a young girl that Dr. Cornell was treating began experiencing an out-of-control immune response. If Dr. Cornell and her other doctors didn’t pinpoint the right course of treatment the first time, the girl would likely die. After getting agreement from her parents to use the experimental technology, Walker and Dr. Cornell ran tests using their equipment, and within five hours had a recommendation for how to adjust her medication. It worked: the girl rapidly recovered.
“To see something I had literally built myself have such an impact on someone was a good feeling,” Walker said. “It said to me, this is how you make an impact. At somepoint, someone has to take academic science into the real world and make use of it.”
The duo found the Zell Lurie Institute and Caroline Landau, MBA ’16, and PreDxion Bio was born. It quickly earned prizes in both the 2016 Michigan Business Challenge and Rice Business Plan Competition, and has since also spent time in Y Combinator.
“One of my first stops was ZLI,” Walker said. “They were the framework that taught me all the nuts and bolts of what you need early on, how to write a business plan, how to make a pitch deck, how to size a market…really, the true fundamentals of starting companies.”
“ZLI is the nexus of all these people with diverse experiences and expertise, and they’re all trying to build cool things that don’t already exist,” Walker continued. “ZLI is truly unique because they’re totally agnostic about where in the university you come from. They are just focused on how they can make you the most successful. The mentors and entrepreneurs-in-residence, all the educational programming, the Michigan Business Challenge, the Zell Fellows Program—you can figure out which parts of their resources you can leverage to do whatever you need for whatever stage your company or your idea happens to be in.”