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Bringing Clinically Meaningful Products to the SCI Community

By ONWARD

Anne joined ONWARD as Regulatory Affairs Engineer in 2016, shortly after graduating from ISIFC Besançon with a MSc in Life Sciences Engineering. She was one of the company’s first hires in Lausanne, which makes her an ONWARD veteran at the tender age of 30! Today, she heads up a four-person clinical team evaluating the effectiveness of the ARC-IM implantable device for a range of spinal cord injury (SCI) and neurological indications.

“The one constant at a start-up is that plans are constantly changing.”

What is a typical day for you as clinical program manager at ONWARD?

There is no typical day, to be honest! My work is extremely varied. Most weeks, I spend some time at the university hospital in Lausanne (CHUV) and the rest in the office. On the clinical side, my team and I collect feedback from clinicians, study participants, and their families about how we could make the device easier for them to use, for example. On the development side, we collect input from our engineers on requirements, safety issues and so on. The members of the clinical team all come from very different backgrounds, in terms of their scientific and technological expertise. It’s a highly collaborative environment that constantly challenges me to expand my knowledge in everything from neuroscience to electrical engineering.

What are you working on right now?

This is an exciting time, as we have four new studies starting in June. We are investigating several indications for the ARC-IM device, including managing blood pressure in people with SCI. Getting to this point has been a year-long process. We had to demonstrate that our device is safe to use, that we have the support of clinicians and hospitals, that all the professionals involved are properly trained, and so on. It’s a lot of people to coordinate, a lot of paperwork, and a lot of complex information to be synchronized between the different teams to ensure the study goes ahead smoothly. We are now in the process of recruiting a total of 13 participants for the four studies.

How has working with people with SCI changed your outlook on disability?  

The participants in our studies insist on the fact that they are not “patients” but “persons living with SCI”. That’s an important distinction. These are ordinary people who go to work, care for their children, and aspire to live as normally as they can. When you ask them what would make the biggest difference in terms of their quality of life, they typically list things like improved blood pressure regulation, sexual function, and bladder control ahead of walking again. These are all areas where our implant has the potential to vastly improve their ability to perform simple, everyday tasks that the rest of us take for granted, like leaning over to plug a phone charger into the wall. It’s immensely satisfying to be able to contribute to making people’s lives better.

What are some of the challenges and rewards of working in a start-up environment?

One of the big challenges for me when I started at ONWARD was the level of independence I had within the team. Even as a junior employee, I was given a lot of responsibility, which was sometimes stressful. But the attitude was “we trust you to do your best. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.” That took away some of the pressure. And my boss, Hendrik Lambert (Vice President Clinical Regulatory Quality at ONWARD), encouraged me to seize every opportunity to learn and get involved in different projects.

The one constant at a start-up is that plans are constantly changing. I’ve learned to be flexible and proactive in looking for different ways to meet our objectives. Working with such a diverse group of professionals – there are 22 different nationalities at ONWARD – has also taught me to adapt the way I communicate to the person I’m interacting with. It’s made me more open-minded and flexible in dealing with challenges in my personal life, too!

What motivated you to pursue a career in engineering?

I initially wanted to become a doctor. But, in France, the medical school entrance exam is highly competitive, and I didn’t get in. That was a huge disappointment. I decided to study biology instead, and then I moved into life sciences engineering for my masters’ degree, with the idea of getting into research at some point. What’s amazing about my job today is that it perfectly straddles the line between industry and academic research. I’m just where I want to be.

What advice would you give to young women considering a career in STEM?

There’s a strong pipeline of young female engineers in the life sciences today. It seems to attract more women than other areas of engineering, possibly because it’s at the “softer” end of the sciences. We are four women in my five-person team, and when we advertised for a new position, over 90% of the CVs we received were from women. So, I would tell young women to go for it! It’s a fascinating field full of passionate people and there’s no reason not to succeed.