Meet Miriam Boer, the Baltimore entrepreneur behind Sonify Biosciences - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Sep. 3, 2015 12:29 pm

Meet Miriam Boer, the Baltimore entrepreneur behind Sonify Biosciences

Biotech ain't easy. Boer explains how Sonify is fighting melanoma — and why starting a company is like “signing up to eat a giant shit sandwich.”
The view inside the Sonify lab.

The view inside the Sonify lab.

(Courtesy photo)

Miriam Boer is an up-and-coming entrepreneur in the STEM field and the CTO and founder of Sonify Biosciences — a company that is in the process of “developing a device that treats melanoma and other skin cancers using low-intensity ultrasound,” she said.

She is also a University of Maryland alumna, a Baltimore resident, a craft beer enthusiast and a blogger. I would like to thank her for taking out the time to interview with me. Check out the full interview here.

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Tell us more about Sonify Biosciences. What is your role as founder and CTO?

Sonify is developing a device to treat melanoma and other skin cancers using low-intensity ultrasound. We have successful proof-of-concept data showing that our treatment not only effectively inhibits melanoma growth, but that inhibition is selective, meaning it spares healthy noncancerous cells.

I started working on this right after grad school with nothing more than an idea, rented a lab bench through a collaboration with the University of Maryland, Baltimore medical school and Sonify was off and running. We’re pioneers in this field. Sonify has three patents pending for treating skin cancer with low-intensity ultrasound, and we’re about to embark on animal studies. We expect to begin human trials within a year.

Miriam Boer

Miriam Boer. (Courtesy photo)

What is your scientific background? How are you applying this background to your work at Sonify?

My background is in chemistry and biochemistry with a smattering of biophysics. With Sonify, I’ve done the majority of the hands-on research, with input from my collaborators at key points. Leading from the front suits me. I don’t know how I’d feel if I wasn’t actually doing lab work.

What are your hobbies?

Sonify straddles that line of work and personal interest. Reading, music, picking up random pieces of science that catch my interest and athletic pursuits keep me happy. Most recently, inspired by a song about Christa McAuliffe called “Silent Key” by Frank Turner, I taught myself a little about the physics of radio waves and how they travel, and I wrote a blog post. Also, Baltimore is a fantastic place if you, like me, enjoy craft beer.

How did you become interested in technology?

The first clear memory I have of compulsively needing to know more about stuff was an unrelenting obsession with marine biology and Jacques Cousteau beginning around age 4. It puzzled my family, but they supported it, checking and re-checking out all the books on the subject from the library. They have a strong DIY streak: my mom, an artist, and other family members are avid gardeners, and my dad, an elevator mechanic, is extraordinarily handy.

Starting a company wasn’t a thing I thought I could do, which isn’t to say that I thought I was incapable of doing it. When you’re the daughter in a blue collar immigrant household, there’s a different mentality. It’s more of a “keep your head down, work hard, don’t rock the boat,” and keeping one’s head down and not rocking boats isn’t how you start something like Sonify. That was a hard adjustment.

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"I can solve problems with meaning, problems with solutions that can genuinely impact humanity"
Miriam Boer

What was your first STEM job?

Well, my first science job out of school was doing flavor and color chemistry research for Pepsi after undergrad. I loved the job, the fast pace, the applied nature, the problem solving and the people I worked with. But I noticed that no matter how good I was, the lack of letters after my name would mean my advancement in industrial research would always be capped. So, I left to get my Ph.D. with the intent of returning to industry.

What do you love about technology?

I can solve problems with meaning, problems with solutions that can genuinely impact humanity. I can create something where there was once nothing. Everyone thinks of science as this monolithic, right/wrong, rigid entity because that’s how it’s taught. But once we master some basics, all we have to do is pick a question to answer, because a hard science Ph.D. is essentially a license to learn nearly anything.

Where did the idea of your company, Sonify Biosciences, come from?

I stumbled across the field of low-intensity ultrasound in grad school by accident, aimlessly browsing the literature, reading what sounded cool. I got obsessively interested in it, and I tried unsuccessfully to turn my interest into a thesis project. So, I kept up with the field in parallel with my thesis work. When I graduated, I figured out which application of low intensity ultrasound was greatly needed, as experimentally straightforward as possible, and of course supported by the literature. That’s how I decided to try it out as a treatment for melanoma and other skin cancers.

How does the medical device your company is developing work?

Melanoma is our primary target because it’s one of the few cancers increasing in both incidence and mortality. Our device will be used as an adjuvant to Mohs surgery, the current standard of care. It will be used primarily to treat the surface of the skin at and surrounding the site of surgery, by exploiting myriad biochemical-level effects that low intensity ultrasound can elicit in diverse cell types.

"I subscribe to the philosophy that opting to start a company is signing up to eat a giant shit sandwich, no matter who you are."
Miriam Boer

Sonify intends to build another barrier between detection of melanoma and metastasis, because metastatic melanoma is highly aggressive and difficult to treat. Once melanoma metastasizes, the odds of positive patient outcomes plummet, so we want to drive the rates of recurrence and metastasis as low as possible.

What is your view on the gender diversity issue in technology, and how do you think it can be resolved?

I subscribe to the philosophy that opting to start a company is signing up to eat a giant shit sandwich, no matter who you are. If it’s a research-heavy biotech company and you’re not a university spinout, add another layer of shit, because the egalitarianism present in the software-based startup world hasn’t permeated biotech yet. Then, for founders, for each step away from a cisgendered heterosexual white male you are, add one layer of shit to the shit sandwich you have to eat. That more or less sums up my experience and observations.

How to resolve the lack of diversity — gender and otherwise — isn’t just about numbers. Additionally, this isn’t a question that only excluded minorities should be charged with answering, because we’re not excluding ourselves. This is a question for the majority demographic in power doing the excluding.

How do you think we can increase the number of women in leadership positions (e.g. CEO, CTO) in the technology industry?

I really don’t know. Again, it’s not as simple as playing the numbers game. Minority exclusion is a culture-wide emotional reaction. It’s very obviously not based in logic or reason, given study after study illustrating that diverse teams make better products and lead more profitable companies.

A big problem with emotional reactions, like the ones fueling minority exclusion, is we can’t have productive reasonable discussions until the majority demographic within leadership positions acknowledges their emotions. That particular demographic does not appear to be — generally speaking — ready to attain that level of self-awareness.

Anything else you’d like to add about yourself?

Here’s a solid Andrew WK party tip: Party how you want, and let everyone else party how they want.

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