HUBweek Change Maker: Daphne Zohar

Daphne Zohar, Founder and CEO, PureTech

Daphne Zohar is a fixture of the Boston innovation scene, with multiple successful ventures under her belt. Her most recent company, PureTech, harnesses scientific data to address a range of major medical needs in unexpected ways. Daphne was a featured storyteller at HUBweek 2015’s Women in Tech Story Slam and was recently recognized as an EY New England Entrepreneur of the Year.

What inspired you to form PureTech? What drives its focus? So often companies are started because someone’s passionate about a specific idea/technology, and they do everything they can to make that successful. We felt there was a different way to approach this, by starting with the unsolved problem (eg. mental health disorders or conditions like obesity and autoimmune disorders where very safe, yet efficacious approaches are needed) and then looking for new modalities one could apply to solving those problems. We decided to focus on chronic conditions that are big contributors to overall healthcare costs and where one could impact a broad number of patients.

PureTech’s Sync Project aims to leverage music as precision medicine. How did this program come to be, and what excites you most about it? The Sync Project is one of 22 programs we are working on and fits within a theme of new modalities that we are testing clinically. We got interested in the growing body of research showing that music can modulate neural systems like the dopamine response, autonomic nervous system, and others related to stress, movement, learning and memory. This research shows that music affects the same neural pathways that are regulated by pharmaceuticals such as psychostimulants and other drugs. We were also intrigued by some initial studies showing that music can reduce the need for opioids after surgery, among other small studies. We wanted to develop a platform that enabled larger scale studies as well as make it easier to do controlled studies. Building on these latest scientific advances, the Sync Project is developing music as precision medicine through the application of machine learning to a unique dataset combining music characteristics and biometric data.

I noticed that the Sync Project is involved with a number of individuals with incredibly diverse backgrounds and perspectives. What value do you feel these points of view bring to the program, and how does interacting with such a diverse set of individuals impact you personally? We’re bringing together some of the brightest minds in the neuroscience of music with some of the most technologically creative musicians to help to advance our product strategy.

If the Sync Project is able to decode the body’s relationship to music over the next few years, what benefits do you foresee arising? We see the potential to develop music as a personalized therapeutic for a variety of conditions, including pain, sleep disorders, fatigue, certain cardiovascular conditions, anxiety and athletic performance.

The Sync Project is just one of PureTech’s programs that focus on “drug-like effects without drugs,” including an action video game experience to benefit brain function and health monitoring via voice analysis. What inspired you to pursue such innovative programs? What continues to drive these pursuits? Healthcare costs have become a hotly debated issue but drug costs are only a small component of overall healthcare spending. Chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, mental health conditions are huge burdens on the healthcare system but the safety bar for treatments is much higher. Applying new modalities to provide “drug like effects without drugs” — new classes of medicines with drug-like efficacy (tested in randomized controlled studies) with a very high intrinsic safety profile could be impactful in in chronic diseases that impact millions of patients over their lifetime. As specific examples, doctors and parents are looking for non-pharmacological approaches to ADHD and other childhood mental disorders. Another example is opioid addiction; its important to find ways to limit unnecessary use of opioids so a post-operative personalized music playlist that adjusts based on biometric data could be useful.

Boston has been recognized for its collaborative and inclusive innovation ecosystem. Do you feel that this fosters success for programs like the Sync Project in ways that other cities might be unable to? Boston is a great place to operate, with access to tremendous innovation and collaboration. But we also don’t believe any geography owns innovation. So we approach all of our new programs with a global perspective, bringing experts together from all over the world and from different disciplines. We believe that the most exciting innovations come from cross-disciplinary thinking and that is very much part of our approach — to go between and beyond disciplines. What better place to do that than Boston with the top medical institutions and technology pioneers like those at the MIT media lab as one example.

The Sync Project recently announced a partnership with HINTSA, studying the relationship between music and athletic performance. What’s your go-to workout jam? This is a sore point around the office where I have been teased mercilessly about my musical tastes. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to extend that information more broadly!

Learn about the unexpected ways PureTech and Daphne are addressing pressing health issues today, and be sure to visit HUBweek.org to discover exciting and engaging events headed to HUBweek 2016 like Medical Storytelling and Leadership: Finding Your Voice in Music and Medicine. Daphne was recently quoted as a Change Maker in HUBweek’s 2016 Preview featured in The Boston Globe.

The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most creative and innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.