Sanjin Zvonić

Pre-DHC expertise?

Stem cell biology, cell therapy CMC development and manufacturing as well as business development, client engagement, and marketing.

You were a client of Dark Horse’s, right? What made you decide to come over to the consulting side of things?

There were multiple factors. I’d always been interested in consulting as a next stage in my career because it allows for a more strategic and creative/visionary application of one’s background and experience. I knew many of the other Dark Horses from working in the industry together over time, and thought highly of them. The final decision point, though, was due to Anthony [Davies, CEO]. I’d met him in 2010 and looked up to him since then as a leader in the field and just a truly high-class guy. He’s assembled a team I’ve been eager to join, because with exceptional colleagues you’re challenged to be your best by the people you can count on. I always value the soft skills in play at an organization and this company’s culture and priorities line up with mine. Plus, I knew that my authentic self would be fully welcomed and appreciated. (More on that later.)

With a group of people who are at the very top of their field and used to being the best, how do you think Dark Horse maintains a culture of teamwork rather than internal competition?
Partly, it has to do with leading from the top, but even more explicitly, by the way goals are set here. Dark Horse goals aren’t set relative to our peers but instead, challenge each of us to do and be our best selves. With this much collective knowledge, the way you bring forward your best and improve your own skillset is by working in tandem: relying on and partnering with colleagues.
Trust in one another sets us each up for success and in my role as a Principal, I cannot better myself without my consultant team’s success. Dark Horse encourages us to make ourselves scalable and to do that, we must work together effectively.

How did you find your way into the field of cell biology?

When I was younger, I wanted to be a vet. I grew up in Croatia and speant a great deal of time on my grandparents’ farm surrounded by animals (domestic and wild alike) and learned to love them all. I started college on a pre-vet track but towards the end of the program I started to take great interest in nutrition. On a personal level, my nutrition classes changed me because they led me to reflect on losing two grandparents to complications from diabetes and the degree to which their causes of death were preventable. I didn’t feel drawn to being a physician, though, so I decided to pursue a program that was a combination of nutrition and molecular biology as a way to impact patient health through non-medical means. In graduate school I started working with stem cells that we separated from liposuction waste and from there, my own tendency to focus on practical applications of knowledge led me to manufacturing. I think of my skillsets as a Swiss army knife: manufacturing is the largest knife on the tool but I have a variety of other applications as well: business development, marketing, etc.

Have you maintained any vestiges of your aspiring-vet self?

I absolutely love animals, all animals, so much so that despite my severe allergies I still figured out how to live with my late husband’s cats for 10 years. But my personal passion is with Italian Greyhounds. I failed miserably as a foster parent because I simply needed to adopt the first one I encountered and that first “iggy” was my gateway drug to the world of show dogs. My current dog Enzo (who can be found on Instagram as @enzolino_the_bambino, if you’re interested) is my third Italian greyhound. I adore them for a great number of reasons; they were one of the oldest known dog breeds, the original companion dog, their EQs are through the roof, and they are extremely loving, engaging and playful. My dog can teach a class on reading a room! Through Instagram, I have discovered he has siblings all over the country because his father is a champion show dog and has sired 27 litters. I like to say that his father doesn’t simply reproduce: he clones. All of his children look just like him; I can tell just from a picture if my dog is likely to be related to yours. We have friends all over simply from connecting with Enzo’s relatives! [ed. note: bonus picture below!]

And you grew up in Croatia? How did you end up in the U.S.?

I always knew I wanted to go abroad to study and I first arrived to the U.S. as an exchange student in South Carolina, for my junior year of high school. In Croatia when you finish your eighth grade education you take entrance exams to focus your studies on either vocational or academic specialties to prepare you for your future and I was in a math and science magnet school there. As a result, I was academically advanced beyond the U.S. high school curriculum that my guidance counselor encouraged me to take the SATs and so after my junior year I just skipped senior year and high school graduation and went straight on to college.

I went to LSU in Baton Rouge, one of the best-funded schools for international students in the country, and found that the French influences in Louisiana particularly resonated with me. I seem to be drawn to places with that continental influence, as we’re in the process right now of moving from New Jersey to Philadelphia, another city with old world charm.

You mentioned your late husband earlier but I know we’ve talked about your current partner. How did you find love again after the death of a spouse?

I lost my husband to multiple myeloma seven years after his diagnosis (at the time of which he had received a 6-month prognosis); our daughter was nine years old at the time. When you’re with someone for so long you can work to prepare each other for death if you know it’s coming. You plan for that and grieve in anticipation so it turned out that the only thing I wasn’t prepared for was how to come out on the other side…how to live after it. And then two of our greyhounds died on top of it all. I had to set an example for our daughter to show her that we would eventually be able to see beyond tomorrow.

The second dog was put to sleep the Wednesday before Labor Day and then over the long weekend some friends brought me to their party to cheer me up and that’s where I met Kevin. We’re currently moving from New Jersey to this wonderful house in Philadelphia, built in 1764, that’s on the historic register. Kevin’s an architect by training, and I’ve always loved architecture so we’re going to get to live one of my dreams and restore a historic home. The people we bought it from restored and updated it when they moved in in 1965 and they’ve been there ever since. The love in the house is palpable. Restoring a historic home is a form of stewardship that Kevin and I are both looking forward to.

How old is your daughter now?

She’s 13 and her brilliance astounds me. This generation is emotionally attuned and aware in ways that I don’t believe we’ve seen before. I grew up in Eastern Europe under socialism, in a very reactive eye-for-an-eye system that addresses the symptoms of problems. With Generation Z here, we’re seeing people growing up having been taught empathy and emotional resilience. That’s something that I hope will enable them to address the root cause of societal ills, rather than just the symptoms.

As a gay man, would you be willing to share thoughts about LGBTQ representation in the field?

I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve been surprised at the general lack of representation in science, a field marked by people whose minds are typically so open to growth and change upon receipt of new information.

That said, I’ve felt welcome all but a handful of times but still, it’s rare to find an out member of the community in a prominent leadership role and I feel that absence. My generation seems to be the first for whom living authentically is really an option. Imagine having to hide something intrinsic to who you are, like your hair color, because you know that not everyone will respect the very fact of you. The concept of “coming out” is a fraught proposition because it can feel as if queer people are put in a position to feel as if we must seek permission to exist. Which…no. Our right to exist simply is.

What other changes do you want to work to see in this field?

Accessibility is key. The technologies we’re developing in cell and gene right now aren’t available to everyone and for these therapies to change the next generation of medicine to the greatest degree possible, we need to continue to innovate. We shouldn’t stop until these life-saving therapies are readily available to everyone. We’re seeing the importance of access to medicine playing out right now, in fact, with the COVID-19 vaccine’s availability in various locations.

Accessibility has a personal element for me as well. I was able to advocate for my late husband when he was first diagnosed because I had a professional understanding of possible available options (like clinical trials, for example). Our first oncologist hadn’t even considered some of the more aggressive options because multiple myeloma isn’t a disease that typically strikes someone in their 40s. Not everyone with this diagnosis has someone to advocate for them, and it pains me to think that, unlike my daughter who got 6 extra years with her dad, there are other children, spouses and parents who don’t get that because they don’t have an advocate.

A recurring theme when talking to cell and gene experts is the focus on the patient, though you may never be face to face with those you’re helping. Even in a space that generates such excitement, you seem particularly passionate about the potential for these treatments. Can you sum up that feeling for us?

I want to see increased diversity of thought in this space. If we continue to think outside the box we’re going to play an active role in completely revolutionizing medicine. Working with a consulting firm helps me challenge companies to find successful pathways that are scalable. Scalability breeds accessibility which ultimately benefits patients. It’s a goal that is equal parts fascinating and necessary.

Principal Sanjin Zvonić stands outside historic home in Philadelphia with partner Kevin and Italian greyhound Enzo

Sanjin (holding Enzo) and Kevin are pictured here on closing day, in front of the historic house they plan to restore in Society Hill, Philadelphia.

Enzo wearing a rainbow collar

enzolino_the_bambino on Instagram

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