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Marc Cohen

A Pioneer Supports the Next Generation of Bioengineers

A gift from Marc A. Cohen, MS '85, comes from his own success at the intersection of engineering and medicine. 

Spring 2014

Although it was well before the dot-com explosion when he arrived on campus in 1984, Marc A. Cohen, MS '85, saw the pixels on the wall. "I chose Stanford because I realized it would be a portal to the about-to-boom computer era," says Cohen, who completed his graduate studies in electrical engineering.

Almost 30 years later, Cohen sees similar potential for bioengineering.

"This area is ripe for explosive discovery," he explains. "We can't wait for government support. It's up to individuals working with higher education research institutions of Stanford's caliber to spearhead cutting-edge initiatives."

That's why he has pledged $800,000 to establish the Marc A. Cohen Graduate Fellowship Research Fund, which supports a graduate student whose work bridges technology and science, with a focus on cancer research. The gift qualifies for $400,000 in matching funds from the university.

Important Questions

The first recipient of the Cohen fellowship is Mariya Chavarha, PhD '18. Originally from the Ukraine, Chavarha is investigating the chemical and optical control of protein function. She is based in the departments of both pediatrics and bioengineering within the School of Medicine.

"I am so grateful to Mr. Cohen for supporting my research," she says. "The ability to control protein activity with light and study intracellular signals may answer a lot of important questions in cell biology."

The Heartbeat of a New Industry

Cohen's own spark of insight came during a Stanford graduate class on signal processing. The professor was demonstrating how a monitor can distinguish between the beating heart of a pregnant woman and that of her unborn baby, enabling an obstetrician to check for abnormalities.

"I was fascinated by how you could apply electrical engineering tools to medicine," Cohen says.

After completing his graduate studies, Cohen and his brother, Alain, started a company called OPNET, for Optimized Network Engineering Tools, based on Alain's research project for a networking course at MIT. The company provides performance analysis and troubleshooting solutions for computer networks and applications.

"We started OPNET the old-school way," recalls Cohen, "in the basement of our parents' house in Washington, DC. We bootstrapped it, without investors. We never spent more than we were making."

By 2013, when the brothers sold OPNET, the company had 700 employees throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.

A Cancer-Free Future

Today, Marc Cohen lives in McLean, VA, and focuses on developing treatments for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases at Boston-based Acetylon Pharmaceuticals, which he cofounded in 2008. Acetylon is a leader in the promising field of epigenetics, which is about regulating gene expression. He also serves on the board of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and is in the process of creating several startups with his brother.

"Cancer is the epidemic of our time," says Cohen, whose mother lost several family members to the disease. "We have made quantum leaps in understanding key mechanisms of cancer that can now be targeted and disrupted, but I look forward to the day when cancer can be managed, like we do diabetes. And I long for the day we can say it has been eradicated."

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