My path to heading a biotech company

Shadi Farhangrazi headshot.

Shadi Farhangrazi brings her experience at the bench, her business training and involvement in international research projects to her post as chief executive of a biotechnology start-up firm.Credit: Marianne Brickner

Neuroscientist and biochemist Shadi Farhangrazi is the chief executive of S. M. Discovery Group (SMDG), a biotechnology company based in Durham, UK. Farhangrazi co-founded SMDG in 2016. It specializes in delivering therapeutic molecules to the brain using NanoLigand Carriers and NanoLigand Blocks, peptide-carrying nanoparticles that can cross the blood–brain barrier. Farhangrazi describes her transition from academia, which included two postdocs after completing her PhD in protein-design biochemistry at Utah State University in Logan. She also explains how projects that she worked on in India and Africa after gaining a master’s of business administration (MBA) prepared her for life as a chief executive.

What prompted you to get your MBA?

I remember during my second postdoc, at the University of California, Irvine, sitting in the laboratory at four in the morning doing experiments. I was working 20-hour days. It was a light-bulb moment, I said to myself: ‘Is this what I want to do with the rest of my career and my life?’ I loved research, but there was a huge question mark: will my work have any application to patients? I didn’t want to become a professor and continue on that path.

A friend with an MBA suggested that I do one too. I learnt about the University of California Irvine business school’s health-care MBA programme, and I started six months later. Studying for an MBA was very different from working late nights in the lab. I was working in teams and solving interesting problems. Once we started looking at health care and biotechnology, I could see how they translated to real-world applications. It was a fascinating transition in my own brain, as to what it means to be a scientist, and how what I do in the lab leads to therapies for diseases two, three, four years down the road.

How did you use the MBA to work in industry?

At first, I went back to academia, in a business and science liaison role at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. I was the face of business and fundraising at the Spinal Cord Injury Research and Rehabilitation programme in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, which involved meeting directly with people in the hospital, including the late US actor Christopher Reeve, who came to the centre for rehabilitation. It made me realize that I needed to better understand the continuum of science, and especially the other side of this continuum — the people with the diseases.

That led me to working as an adviser in Africa with governmental organizations and advising small and medium enterprises and charities. I then worked in India as part of an advisory team working with the US Agency for International Development on one of its AIDS-relief projects. We worked with health-focused staff members at the US embassy and India’s health ministry on projects related to children and women’s health. I also advised smaller companies who were focusing on improving health in the country. I realized that, to get the science to people, we need to be effective about how we transition from lab to clinic. Business development is also important, because many low-income countries cannot access expensive medicines.

When you travel around the world, seeing modern medical centres contrasted with countries where even having a freezer in a clinic is a luxury, you understand what it means to get a vaccine or a drug — that most people in the world cannot afford — to those affected by diseases. After this international work, I recognized that I needed a position in which I could apply both my scientific and MBA education, and that led me to my current role at SMDG.

Around 2011, Moein Moghimi, then the director of the Centre for Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology at the University of Copenhagen, and inventor of the technology behind SMDG, approached me and explained that he had an interesting discovery and that it needed support. Moghimi and I knew each other from when we were teenagers in boarding school in the United Kingdom. He was one of my best friends. The technology could potentially deliver neurological drugs to the brain, but it needed further testing and validation. I was intrigued. Moghimi then asked me to be the chief executive of the company. I call myself an accidental chief executive because I didn’t seek this executive position. However, I am happy that I took on this difficult job. Being a woman born in Iran and not having a pharmaceutical background are factors that make my job challenging. Few women run biotech companies and even fewer receive investment. I have felt the lack of support as a female scientist and as a woman in the life-sciences business world.

What are the main similarities between working in academia and industry?

The struggle to find funding or investment is an obvious one. There are great projects built on pre-clinical data that you know you could get to the clinic, but clinical trials are expensive and time-consuming. As a society, we need to take a closer look at funding for important research. I am out there every day, making a case to the investors, saying “please fund us, because you could help us to get this to the patients”. So, the similarity is continuously making a case, whether you’re applying for a grant or you’re in front of investors giving them a five-minute pitch.

How have your international work experiences prepared you for your current role?

I was a very shy and introverted person, and hated speaking in front of others. For my current role, I had to become that motivational person, be that driving force, so that’s one of the skills I learnt.

The other skill I learnt was how to relate to others. For example, there are hundreds of rare diseases that affect people. At BIO-Europe 2023, a biopharmaceutical partnering event held in Basel, Switzerland, I met two people who had children with rare paediatric diseases, so this was real life. I think: what if this was my family member? Safety is a huge thing for us. We know we have an effective method, but does it have a good safety profile?

I’m driving a small biotech company that has ambitions of bringing life-saving therapies to people with neurodegenerative conditions and to children with neurological diseases.

I’m often wearing the hat of a scientist or a businesswoman, but I’m also an advocate for people with diseases. I give talks to patient groups about neurodegeneration. It’s about education and communicating science to the public. You cannot be a scientist and not be a patient advocate, too, especially if you are working on diseases that affect people who are trying to understand why there are no therapies for them. I also meet with family members of people with neurodegenerative diseases. I have an open-door policy by which they can contact me.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you have done instead?

I would have become an author, writing novels, that type of storytelling. I come from a family of writers and authors. I have co-edited a nanomedicine book with Moghimi and I have also written a children’s book. In my free time, I do three things that I love: yoga, meditation and gardening.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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