CEO Woman: Brain Quest

As founder and CEO of biotech firm SiNON Nano Sciences, Afreen Allam aims to revolutionize treatment for neurological conditions

By Anna Rappel

Courtesy of Durham Magazine

When Afreen Allam and her sisters were kids, they loved using their imaginations to concoct potions in the kitchen. She admits that their “weird recipes” sometimes disappointed. But their experiments—the trial and error, encouraged by their mother—helped hone the investigative mindset that serves her today.

Research and development, after all, are at the heart of SiNON Nano Sciences, the biotech firm that Allam founded. The company, based in Durham, North Carolina, uses a patented technology designed to more effectively treat people with neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, for example, and the effects of brain tumors.

Allam began pondering how to improve the patient experience as a teenager while volunteering at the Duke Cancer Center, where she saw medication side effects firsthand. After getting a grounding in microbiology and biochemistry, she went abroad to study at the renowned Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), where she spent long hours in the lab conducting nanotechnology research.

Aiming her efforts toward neurological health, she developed an innovative nanocapsule technology that she calls the Carbon Nano Dot. This carbon nanoparticle encapsulates medication, acting as a Trojan horse to deliver the drug across the often-impenetrable blood-brain barrier. (Allam’s company is named after Sinon, who convinced the Trojans to open the city gates, allowing entry to the wooden horse full of Greek warriors.)

A Carbon Nano Dot essentially delivers concentrated medication to a specific site—such as a tumor—while reducing overall toxicity and side effects. Allam’s father, Abdul, who has a degree in organic chemistry, encouraged her to file for a patent, which she did at age 20.

SiNON’s role isn’t to develop drugs, but rather to partner with pharmaceutical companies to make their medications more safe and effective. As a Muslim woman of color without a PhD navigating the white, male-dominated field of biotech, Allam has bumped into plenty of skeptics. But her years of nanotechnology research and her innovative Carbon Nano Dot have helped quell the skepticism, including among prospective investors.

The daughter of Indian and Pakistani immigrants, Allam’s support circle encompasses her sisters, Nida, the first Muslim American woman elected to office in North Carolina, to serve on the Durham County Board of Commissioners, and Arsheen, founder of the clean-tech start-up GOLeafe.

Allam double majored in microbiology and biochemistry at North Carolina State and has an MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

She spoke to Diversity Woman about the inspiration behind the Carbon Nano Dot, its game-changing potential, and how pushing confidently forward can turn naysayers into yea-sayers.

Diversity Woman: Your volunteer work at Duke Cancer Center during high school prompted you to work on improving drug delivery into the body. How so?

Afreen Allam: A lot of times, I was part of the patient support program because many patients didn’t have family members or friends close by. As a 17-year-old, it was hard to see how short life is, but also to see all the side effects with traditional forms of chemotherapy.

Two weeks in, I thought I was going to quit because I didn’t know if I could handle how challenging it was to see all these pain points on a day-to-day basis. But I immediately formed a bond with some of the patients. Eventually a lot of them shared their feelings about the side effects that they were seeing with the medications.

We are pumping all these toxins into humans and hoping they end up killing the tumors, but in the long run, they do damage to the rest of the body. And that got me thinking, there has to be a better alternative.

DW: How did the idea for Carbon Nano Dot come about?

AA: We came up with carbon-based technology because our bodies naturally have carbon present. We didn’t want to introduce a foreign particle that was going to cause an immune response or some sort of reaction to the body.

We decided to start with neurological diseases because there’s a huge unmet need getting medications past the blood-brain barrier, which is our natural defense mechanism to keep everything [harmful] out of the brain. When a patient has a [neurological condition]—whether it’s Alzheimer’s, a brain tumor, even something simpler like ADHD—we need medications to get there. And currently only 2 percent of the drugs available on the market can actually do so.

DW: What challenges did you face as you were launching your company?

AA: [While attending Duke’s Fuqua School of Business], I saw a flyer for the Duke Startup Challenge, a start-up pitch event that lasts the entire year. When I was applying, people said, “Hey, you’re biotech, so you’re not even going to be considered.” And I thought, it’s not a matter of making it to the finals; it’s more forcing me to have deliverables—to put together a pitch deck and a business plan, which I need regardless. Having this format and deadlines to submit this thing will only motivate me to do it faster.

There were close to 300 applications, and they go through multiple rounds throughout the year. We were one of the 10 [finalist companies]. We had to pitch in front of a room of 400 or 500 people, and the VC who was writing the check said, “I don’t invest in biotechs; I don’t believe in them. The runway’s too long.” I guess too much of a financial commitment. I thought, we worked really hard to get here. There has to be somebody in the audience who could open doors to potential partnerships or investors. I’m just going to pitch as if I didn’t hear what she said.

To our surprise, at the end of the night, they announced our name as the final winner. We took home that $50,000 check, and it was life-changing because that was the first external funding we got that was non-dilutive, meaning we didn’t have to pay any investors back or give up any of the company. It also opened doors.

Maybe six months later, we applied for an NC IDEA grant [for North Carolina–based start-ups] and it was a very similar story. They said, “No biotech has ever won. Don’t waste your time applying.” We applied. We ended up getting that next $50,000, which was, again, non-dilutive money.

DW: What is the potential of Carbon Nano Dot?

AA: I think the possibilities are basically endless. Initially our focus is neurological diseases, but it can be applied broadly to oncology, independent of where the tumor is. Also to things like diabetes, where we’ve been able to encapsulate insulin to see if we can do an oral formulation. These are all things in the next stage, because [right now] we want to focus on one disease area.

DW: How do you get through the tough times?

AA: We definitely have a lot of those in the start-up field. It’s really a roller-coaster ride. Within the same day, you can have multiple highs but also multiple lows. Having a strong support circle—whether it be family, friends, mentors, or just a loved one—is the most important thing. My sister is in a different space but also in the start-up field, and sharing pain points or trying to brainstorm together helps.

And my dad, now that he’s retired, works full-time with me [as director of R&D]. Having him by my side to talk things through has been incredibly helpful. For any kind of start-up company, make sure you have a strong support circle because they are the ones who are going to get you through the hard days.

DW: How would you describe your leadership style?

AA: It’s very much focused on bringing people together and solving challenges through collaborative work. I value everybody on the team—their feedback and their thoughts. They may come up with an idea that I hadn’t thought about. So it’s building a collaborative and empowered team to build a strong foundation. And as you grow, the team brings in people who have a similar mindset and can share the vision of where this company should go.

DW: Moving forward, how will SiNON Nano Sciences remain competitive?

AA: As a biotech company, maintaining our IP [intellectual property] portfolio is always huge. So making sure that we’re staying ahead of the curve and continue optimizing, but also enhancing our technology. We can’t stop innovating because it becomes very easy for other people to reverse-engineer the technology. Our goal is that, even if somebody were able to do that, we’re already three or four steps ahead of them. DW

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