(Editor’s note: This story is part of a package profiling Muslim sisters Afreen, 33, Arsheen, 31, and Nida, 28, Allam, first-generation Americans with parents from India and Pakistan. Raised in Raleigh each are forging high-profile careers in politics and tech. Even though the writer and subjects share the same surname, they are in no way related.)
DURHAM – Afreen Allam says she always felt the need to help people. So as a teenager, she started volunteering at the Duke Cancer Center.
Two weeks into her stint, however, she almost quit.
“It was so challenging to watch patients have their lives impacted so severely, not necessarily because of the tumor itself, but because of the medication they’re given,” recalls Allam, who grew up in Raleigh, a first-generation American of Muslim immigrants. “That got me thinking, there must be a better alternative.”
Fast-forward to today: The 33-year-old, a graduate of Duke University’s Fuqua Business School, is now the founder and CEO of the Durham-based biomedical company SiNON Nano Sciences. She’s developed a new technology she calls the Carbon Dot (which she filed at age 20) — a nanoparticle that makes it easier to deliver toxic drugs across the blood-brain barrier, potentially ushering in breakthrough treatments for diseases like brain tumors, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and more.
Allam is also the eldest of a powerhouse sister trio defying Muslim stereotypes. Her sister, Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, 28, is the first Muslim American to be elected to office in North Carolina. She’s currently running for Congress in the state’s newly redrawn 6th Congressional District. Her other sister, Arsheen Allam, 31, is the founder and CEO of her own cleantech startup, GOLeafe.
“Even though we were a family of all girls, my father told us: ‘Don’t let anyone put you down because you’re a female. You’ve got to be your own boss.’ So that’s what I did,” she says.
Brain disease affects one in six people worldwide and includes a wide spectrum of diseases and disorders—from stroke and Alzheimer’s to multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and more, according to the American Brain Foundation.
The problem is, says Allam, that only two percent of the drugs to treat these diseases and conditions can pass through the blood-brain barrier, a semipermeable membrane that separates the brain’s circulating blood and the nervous system’s extracellular fluid.
She says she developed the Carbon Dot to safely and non-invasively transport a wide variety of substances through the blood-brain barrier such as drug molecules, diagnostic markers. The result: improved targeted drug delivery while lowering the risks of toxicity and side effects.
“This nanoparticle is literally that ‘Trojan horse’ mechanism where we can mask the drug on the inside, coat it with this carbon-based nanoparticle, and get it to go wherever you want in the body,” she says.
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Indeed, that’s where the company gets its name from. In Greek mythology, Sinon was the warrior who pretended to have deserted the Greeks and, as a Trojan captive, convinced them that the giant horse left outside the gates of Troy was a gift to the gods, thus sealing them to their fate.
“The whole mission of the company is quality of life for patients,” she says. “We don’t want to have a patient stuck to their hospital bed for the next three, four months. We want them to be able to live normal, healthy lifestyles.”
Born in Canada, Allam moved to Cary with her family at age 10 when her father got a job with IBM. Her mother is from Pakistan, and her father is from India.
From a young age, she says, she spent her school breaks visiting her parents’ homelands, opening her eyes to poverty and inequity on a global scale. She also felt the pressure to succeed: “Growing up in Asian families, the options are — medical school, law school or become an engineer.”
For a while, Allam toed the line. She enrolled as a pre-med student at NC State, graduating with a double major in microbiology and biochemistry in 2010. In what was seen as a steppingstone into medical school, she even spent her sophomore year studying abroad, accepting a position in the chemistry department at the Indian Institute of Technology’s Kanpur campus – “basically like the MIT and Harvard of India.”
It was there that she began developing what would become the Carbon Dot. The work turned out to be so novel that her father, who has a degree in organic chemistry himself, suggested that she apply for a patent.
“My dad stepped up and funded the entire process,” she says.
The patent arrived in 2014, but Allam had hit a crossroads. With her startup incubating, she decided to forgo medical school, instead opting for Duke’s MBA program.
“My parents were initially not very happy about it,” she admits. “But I felt like research was making a big impact, potentially helping hundreds of patients at once rather than one patient at a time.”
She found early success. In 2015, she entered the 16th annual Duke Startup Challenge, a university-wide entrepreneurship competition and snagged the $50,000 prize.
Not long after, she won an NC IDEA grant for another $50,000.
Still, as a Muslim woman who wears hijab, navigating the male-dominated biotech industry hasn’t always been easy, she admits.
For years, she has travelled back and forth from the US to India where her company has a research lab focused on engineering and production in Tirupati, struggling to be taken seriously. (SiNON also uses an animal lab in Gujrat.)
“If you’re a female, younger and don’t have PhD, there’s constantly the question of credibility,” she says. “A lot of times, I’d have to get my dad to just sit on a call [with India], and I tell him beforehand, ‘I need you to say X, Y and Z.’ He’d have to be the one to say it for them to listen.”
But she persevered.
SiNON currently has an office in Durham and lab space in India, and operates with a team of five employees, including Afreen and her father, Abdul Allam, who serves as director of research and development.
Allam, meanwhile, is working remotely from Boston after recently completing two accelerator programs: MassChallenge, a global, zero-equity startup accelerator based in Boston; and Endless Frontier Labs (EFL), a nine-month program at NYU Stern for early-stage science- and technology-based startups.
(She and her husband, Mohamed Uduman, also welcomed their first child, Rania, last October.)
To date, she’s secured close to $1 million in funding through grants and angel investors. She’s also getting ready to launch the next phase of animal studies focusing on efficacy in glioblastoma, a fast-growing, aggressive brain tumor.
Ultimately, she says the goal is to license the technology to multiple pharmaceutical companies for different indications. She expects to start generating revenue sooner than later.
“Once we get these efficacy studies done, we can build the proof of concept. It’s not going to take us 10-15 years; it’s more along the two to three-year mark.”
For her, the key is to stay positive. “Everyone [must] believe in themselves, surround yourself with a good support circle and build your own dreams.”