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Scientist-CEO, Shawn Carbonell, shares insights for entrepreneurs



Dr. W. Shawn Carbonell, MD, PhD, is not just a neurosurgeon turned CEO; he's a visionary dedicated to transforming the landscape of biotech and healthcare. Fueled by a fervent desire to combat glioblastoma and revolutionize cancer therapy, Dr. Carbonell's journey from the lab to the boardroom epitomizes resilience and innovation. His groundbreaking work on glioblastoma drug candidates, including OS2966 in Phase I clinical trials, reflects a deep commitment to pushing the boundaries of medical science. Beyond his scientific endeavors, Dr. Carbonell's ventures extend to Brazen Bio, empowering scientist-CEOs to translate groundbreaking discoveries into tangible solutions, showcasing his unwavering dedication to fostering a future where healthcare knows no bounds.


In the quest for a cure, Dr. Carbonell's determination knows no bounds, whether it's navigating the complexities of drug development or leveraging social media to amplify awareness. His advocacy for a combination immunotherapy approach underscores his belief in collaboration and innovation as the keys to unlocking medical breakthroughs. 


Through his TikTok platform and nonprofit initiatives like Cure Glioblastoma, Dr. Carbonell is not only educating the masses but also building a supportive community united in the fight against glioblastoma. With Brazen Capital and Brazen Bio, he's not just shaping the future of biotech; he's redefining what it means to be a catalyst for change, inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs to dare to dream and disrupt the status quo for the betterment of humanity.


  1. As a leader in the biotech industry, what are some innovative breakthroughs you’ve seen that you’re most excited about? 


The canned answer is of course “the intersection of biomed/AI”. That will be transformative, but we aren’t quite there yet. Honestly I’m MOST excited about the growing movement of early career scientists towards entrepreneurship (i.e., launching their discoveries beyond the laboratory). There are so many basic unmet needs in medicine and I believe this is the only way to significantly scale solutions beyond what big pharma deems marketable. 


  1. As someone who has ventured from the lab to the boardroom, what inspired you to transition into entrepreneurship, and what lessons have you learned along the way? 


I’m connecting the dots backwards, but I made the realization during the pandemic that I’m actually NOT a purebred entrepreneur. I realized that the happiest I’ve ever been was when I was solving scientific mysteries at the laboratory bench surrounded by like-minded colleagues, particularly my stint at Oxford. BUT, when you make a discovery in the lab that you know could save lives you have to make a decision.


Do I just publish it in a fancy journal and keep doing more research and hope someone else carries the ball to the end zone? Or, do I risk everything and carry the ball in myself? Obviously, the drug I developed is now in clinical trials so I was just crazy enough to choose the latter. Startups are exceedingly hard.


The lesson here, in retrospect, is that you have the best chance of succeeding if you are absolutely obsessed with the problem.

So while I wasn’t a natural entrepreneur, my passion for defeating glioblastoma helped to drive me through the ambiguity, late nights, and extreme lows of startup life. And now, being on the other side of the table, this is what I look for in founders I’m considering investing in. 


  1. For venture capitalists seeking to invest in transformative ideas, what advice would you offer in evaluating startups and fostering innovation? 


I answered this in the previous question. Obviously, this is stage-dependent. At the earliest stages you are basically investing in the potential of the founders. It’s cliché but most startups die because the founders give up.


  1. How do you envision the role of startups and biotech innovation in shaping a better world, both in terms of healthcare and broader societal impact? 


All technologies are essentially tools that improve the human condition. Of course, this is no different for biotechnology. The problem is most of the discoveries and inventions are locked up in laboratory notebooks and university technology transfer offices. The academic system does not really incentivize innovation. The academic publish or perish system ironically incentivizes keeping technologies in the laboratory as long as possible. The cycle is doing research to publish so you can win more grants to do more of the same research you can publish so you can win more grants to do more of the same research you can publish…

The newest generation of trainees, thankfully, are being exposed to entrepreneurship as an option beyond academia and working in big pharma and I see this trend continuing. Here’s to the rising generation of scientist-CEOs!

  1. What advice would you give to individuals considering a career pivot, especially from academia to entrepreneurship?


I’d say go back and read my answer to question #2. Startups are EXTREMELY hard so you have to be EXTREMELY motivated. I remember seeing Michael Seibel speak at YC a few years back and revealing that med students who got in YC were the most likely to fail… possibly because being a startup founder is harder than being in med school and so they went back, haha. So, to reiterate… work on something you are totally obsessed with. Don’t just work on health AI because it is a hot field right now. It was truly brutal (e.g., mental and physical health suffered, marriage failed), but I don’t regret any of it and would do it again. 


  1. What role do you see artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies playing in the future of healthcare and biotech?


I addressed this a little in some of my responses above, but I’m super bullish on it. I don’t think anything will be as impactful as AI in biomedicine. There are so many boring and laborious tasks in healthcare and biotech startups that could be handled by AI and there is a lot of promise for AI in research as well, particularly handling massive data sets. The next 5 years will be transformative. 


  1. Looking back on your journey, what advice would you give to your younger self or to aspiring entrepreneurs striving to make a difference in the world?


I actually wrote a sponsored post about this back in 2018 (https://www.nationalcar.com/en/blog/note-to-self-brush-your-shoulders-off.html). In a nutshell, it speaks—once again—to finding what you love doing that benefits others and can make you money (aka, the hedgehog principle). 


  1. I’d consider you to be a jack of all trades - you’re an entrepreneur, creator, scientist, and venture capitalist, what would you say to someone who is multi-faceted and concerned about being a generalist?


I wouldn’t frame this in terms of being a generalist versus specialist. People can be both depending on context. I’ve dabbled in so many areas because I am merely exploring my interests and figuring out how I want to spend my time to have the greatest impact. How do you know what you are passionate about in life if you’ve only tried one or two things?


My advice is not to worry about societal labels or what other people think at all, but to keep an open mind to the myriad opportunities we all have today in the internet/AI age and realize YOUR HAPPINESS AND FULFILLMENT IS IN YOUR HANDS.

Subscribe to Shawn's newsletter, The House Brazeryen, where he breaks down the latest scientist-CEO news. My favorite part is his Brazen Snax recap! Here's a preview:

BRAZEN BREAKDOWN

If you are working on technologies that may have applications to glioblastoma please consider applying to YC! And if you do, let me know how I can help.

[This post is based on my LinkedIn Post from last week.]

BRAZEN SNAX




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