Growing up in Lawrence set the foundation for KU alumna who now has key role at startup dedicated to cell sorting technology

photo by: Aspire Marketing

University of Kansas alumna and Lawrence native Alex Hyler works in the lab. Hyler is vice president and Chief Scientific Officer at CytoRecovery, a startup company working to develop and commercialize a cell sorting technology that could be instrumental in studying highly-aggressive cancer cells.

Alex Hyler’s educational path growing up in Lawrence would probably sound familiar to many locals: first Sunflower Elementary, then Southwest Middle School and Lawrence High School, followed by an undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas.

But not many can claim a similar course from then on. Hyler went on to earn a doctorate in biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech and is now one of the leaders of CytoRecovery, a startup company working to develop and commercialize a cell sorting technology that could be instrumental in studying highly aggressive cancer cells.

Hyler made a return to KU’s campus during the first couple of days of February to give a presentation about CytoRecovery at the Center of BioModular Multi-Scale Systems for Precision Medicine annual meeting. She spoke with the Journal-World following that visit and said after more than 10 years researching the technology, hearing positive feedback and respect from other meeting attendees was a humbling experience.

“It is very humbling and I have a lot of respect for that,” Hyler told the Journal-World. “It makes the times when it was just me in a very small closet lab come full circle, to where the hard work is starting to pay some dividends here as the project is getting on the market.”

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The work Hyler is doing at CytoRecovery is high-level stuff, which means it may best be described by her more simplified “parent pitch.” Her background is in oncology and cancer research, and the company’s work is focused on things like figuring out how to sort out highly aggressive cancer cells so they can be studied and used to develop a specialized chemotherapy regimen for a patient, for example.

“Sorting cells is really important in a variety of fields, thinking through diagnostics all the way through to personalized medicine, treatment, development, things like that,” Hyler said. “So everywhere from diagnosing all the way through to an actual therapeutic development or drug development.”

Another occasion when cell sorting could be used is for “genomic profiling,” she said, which is used to learn about all the genes in a person or in a specific type of cell and the way those genes interact with each other and the environment. That might involve sorting out subsets of cells from a tumor to better understand what’s going on genetically.

But the part that’s unique to CytoRecovery, Hyler said, is how its sorting technology differs from most others today, which tend to require a “label.” That quite literally means attaching microscopic labels directly to cells, which then can be sorted by color.

CytoRecovery doesn’t do any labeling, though. Instead, Hyler said the company’s technology sorts cells by their inherent physical structure — the membranes, proteins, charges and other components that come together to make a cell.

photo by: CytoRecovery

CytoRecovery’s cell sorting product system is pictured.

“That’s critically important if you’re thinking about, again, moving toward actually testing patient cells, or maybe even sorting them to then engineer them to put them back in the patient or doing some further manipulation downstream,” Hyler said. “If they have a label on them, they cannot be used further.”

The company was co-founded in 2018 by Rafael Davalos, Hyler’s Ph.D. adviser and the inventor of the core of CytoRecovery’s platform, and Virgina Tech alumnus Leo Harris. Hyler said she’d worked on adjacent research with Davalos while obtaining her Ph.D., and she ended up becoming the company’s first employee once she graduated.

Hyler has advanced from “employee number one” all the way up to vice president and chief scientific officer, which sees her taking on a truly hybrid role. She said her primary responsibilities are on the scientific side, but she also handles everything from sales and customer relations to IT support. In the roughly five years since the startup was founded, it’s grown to a staff of five full-time and five part-time employees.

photo by: CytoRecovery

Members of the CytoRecovery team — with Lawrence native and KU grad Alex Hyler at center — are pictured at their annual holiday party in December 2023.

It’s a dynamic that Hyler said she thoroughly enjoys since she’s able to combine business, science, sales and more — often all in one day.

“Startup life is definitely what everyone tells you; it’s a wild rollercoaster,” Hyler said. “We have really high highs and really low lows. … The part that I really enjoy is it afforded me the opportunity to gain a just hugely vast set of skillsets. I can, of course, do the science — that’s kind of what you prove with a Ph.D. — and the engineering, but now I also know how to negotiate a patent licensing agreement and things of that nature.”

She’s so well-versed on that front that she teaches a class on the subject at Virginia Tech, “Commercialization of Biomedical Engineering Research,” once a year to senior and graduate-level students. Hyler said it’s an opportunity to not only give those students a glimpse into the work she’s doing at CytoRecovery but also get them thinking about other skills they may need, like how to navigate a patent application.

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Hyler credits much of her success to the “incredible mentorship” she’s received over the years, from people such as CytoRecovery’s CEO, Steve Turner. She said the company is also fortunate to receive so much support from Virginia Tech, especially since it’s not based in a typical startup hub like Boston or San Francisco. And Hyler said she’s lucky to have incredibly supportive — and proud — parents, who still live here in Lawrence and were able to come listen to her talk on campus in person.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

University of Kansas alumna and Lawrence native Alex Hyler answers questions during the Center of BioModular Multi-Scale Systems for Precision Medicine’s annual meeting on campus Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.

During the past couple of years, some of that support has even come from her alma mater. Steve Soper at KU is the director of the Center of BioModular Multi-Scale Systems for Precision Medicine, and Hyler called him a “world-renowned expert” in the field.

Both of them are KU alumni, and Hyler’s company first began working with him after she noticed an article in an alumni newsletter detailing how he was doing the same type of research. She actually didn’t know Soper professionally, but a “cold email” was all it took to start their collaboration.

That speaks volumes about Soper, KU and Lawrence itself, Hyler said — there are other places where reaching out like that might not result in as enthusiastic a response.

“We’re excited to keep working with them,” Hyler said. “We have conversations now with the medical campus since they have a comprehensive cancer center status. There’s some potentially really exciting things we can do to continue expanding our partnership.”

That’s just one example of how Hyler’s Lawrence roots run deep. In her youth, a trip to Eutin, Germany as part of Lawrence’s Sister Cities exchange program later led to a decision to study abroad in another German city during college. Hyler is a third-generation Jayhawk, which fed part of her desire to stick around for her undergraduate degree.

Growing up in Lawrence set such a good foundation for Hyler’s future success, in fact, that she even credits her participation in high school debate as key to developing her skills in research and communication.

“I always knew I wanted to stay in Lawrence,” Hyler said. “If I’m being honest, I loved it.”

It’s no surprise then that Hyler feels especially nostalgic whenever she’s back on campus and gets to see how it’s evolved and grown while she’s been away. Seeing the current state of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, which is under construction as part of a $448 million renovation, was one example of that change from her recent visit.

She was even able to spend some time at Allen Fieldhouse while she was in town, since her visit coincided with KU basketball’s victory against Houston.

Hyler said she wouldn’t have expected to end up at this point even immediately following her time at KU. She was unfamiliar with Blacksburg, the Virginia city that’s home to Virginia Tech, and growing up she always thought she’d become a medical doctor. Her career path has plotted itself out well in the years since, as Hyler has learned that she most enjoys solving medical problems and not diagnosing them, and she describes Blacksburg as a community with a similar vibe to Lawrence.

Things change quickly — even Hyler’s initial desire to look for work away from Virginia as she finished her education.

“But an opportunity to work at a startup doesn’t come around every day,” Hyler said. “I knew it was a risk, but I knew I was excited to potentially still take that on.”


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