Neurosurgery's Most Interesting Couple

Drs. Shawn and Anne-Marie Carbonell are co-founders and respectively CEO/chief scientific officer and chief medical officer of OncoSynergy, a biopharma startup dedicated to changing the standard of care for cancer patients. They are also both former standout Neurosurgery residents who left training to pursue a moonshot of an idea. Now married, this power couple actually first met on the residency interview trail almost 10 years ago. 

To leverage their expertise and personal interest, they are focusing initially on glioblastoma, the most common and most deadly form of primary brain cancer. I first stumbled upon their work this past summer, while fundraising for the National Brain Tumor Society in memory of my father Sam.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with them for a chat in their new office space in Greenwich, CT (which, in true startup fashion, doubles as their home).

“Risk-taking is addictive.” – Shawn

Shawn comes from an astonishing neurosurgical and scientific pedigree, spending time at the University of Washington in Seattle, the University of Virginia, Oxford University in England, and the University of California, San Francisco. Early in his residency at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, he could not shake the notion that “it will be the science, not the scalpel” that will change the way diseases are cured; ironically, this is a quote from his own chairman. He thus decided to drop out and devote his career to translating his basic science discoveries into game-changing multimodal therapies for cancer. He has never looked back. (I would say he even relishes in his rogue-ness.)

“Vasospasm was my jam.” – Anne-Marie

Anne-Marie, on the other hand, never once envisioned she would be on this path. Her lifelong passions were Neurosurgery and fashion (she did not disappoint in regards to the latter; she was wearing her trademark pink lipstick and a pair of Rihanna Fenty slides when we met). She was deep into junior residency at the Cleveland Clinic after astoundingly passing her Neurosurgery boards as an intern. By all accounts, she was an assured rising-star.

I loved the complexities of neurocritical care and it is an honor and privilege to be an important part of patients’ lives at their sickest and most vulnerable.” But then her life was turned upside down by the abrupt onset of an auto-immune disease, which forcibly ripped the only career she had ever wanted out of her skilled hands. For Anne-Marie, leaving her career as a neurosurgeon was, and still is, hard on her. After initially pivoting to industry jobs at medical device companies to gain clinical development experience, she brings a newfound and valuable skill set to OncoSynergy, and leverages her own experiences as a patient with a chronic illness in the design of their clinical trials.

“It’s harder being an outsider in biotech.” — Shawn

Much like the science that is the foundation of their work, as a couple, their goals for the company are synergistic. Their business plan is full of humanistic ideals. They want to be patient-focused and innovative using their own extensive scientific and clinical backgrounds, but they both caution that this vision is often met with frustrating skepticism when working with potential partners and investors. The innovative two-part trial they are proposing is novel and patient-friendly which is often perceived as an unnecessary financial risk. Thus, their attention to detail is both a boon and a curse. For example, Anne-Marie, herself a patient, realized that study protocols in humans are often recycled for trivial reasons and without thought to the comfort of study participants. So, for their first clinical trial, she has implemented design elements like limiting unnecessary blood draws to biologically informed timepoints which is both less cumbersome for patients and more economical for everyone.

The road to where they are now, on the move to begin their first in-human trial, has been rife with challenges. However, fresh from their Series A venture capital round this spring and with dozens of patents issued, it is easier for Shawn to reminisce with humor about the times when he wasn’t sure his fledgling company would make it. But there is still an edge in his voice. “Everyone kept telling us drug development is too difficult and that only big biopharma veterans could do it. Honestly, it ain’t brain surgery. When your science [speaks for itself], it’s mostly a matter of project management and capital. As a first-time co-founder team we’ve really excelled at it and literally the only thing that has held us up thus far is money. We heard “no” from hundreds of VCs over the years until we got our first “yes” at the end of 2017. Had we been able to raise sufficient capital four years ago, our drug candidate might have already been widely available to patients by now.”

“The grant-writing cycle is the rate-limiting step in academia.” – Shawn

As someone who completed a PhD myself, I can commiserate with Shawn’s exasperations with academic research. He offers sound advice to anyone ready to go rogue and start a company. Invaluable to him at the start was Peter Kolchinsky’s The Entrepreneur’s Guide to a Biotech Startup, although he warns it is written from the investor’s perspective. He is currently working on his own no-nonsense primer from the founder’s viewpoint and, based on his experiences as a moderator in the 2018 Y Combinator Startup School (YCSUS18), is offering office hours for early bioentrepreneurs. He recommends getting involved with the startup culture at your institution or in your city. “Find people going through what you are going through so you can push and support each other. Who knows, you may discover your co-founder.” And while you may not intend to apply to the highly competitive Y Combinator in Silicon Valley (they only fund ~3% of startup applicants), he recommends at least filling out the YC application as an important exercise at any stage of a company but especially in the early stages of fleshing out an idea.

“We want to help make Greenwich a hub for innovation and startups.” – Shawn

Greenwich is strategically equidistant between NYC and Yale/New Haven and home to over 80 hedge funds, but often thought of merely as an old money suburb of The City. On my five-minute walk from the train station to their office/home, I passed high-end cafes and shops, an Apple Store and even a Tesla dealership nestled in the charming historic buildings of Main Street Greenwich, CT. I’m with you Shawn—not at all a displeasing environment in which to work. Maybe one day you will have a neighbor in me.

Both Shawn and Anne-Marie use social media as a way to reach patients and potential hires and spread word of the good work they are doing. You can follow their entertaining Instagram accounts @brainsurgerydropout and @fashionsurgeon.

Dr. David Kurland is currently a PGY-1 resident in the Department of Neurosurgery at the NYU School of Medicine in Manhattan. He was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. You can connect with him on Twitter and Instagram.

Dr. Kurland is a 2018–19 Doximity Author.

Image by David Kurland, MD, PhD

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