Neuroscientist and biochemist Shadi Farhangrazi is CEO of SM Discovery Group (SMDG), a biotechnology company based in Durham, UK. Farhangrazi co-founded SMDG in 2016. It focuses on 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 doctorate in protein-design biochemistry at Utah State University in Logan. She also explained how the projects she worked on after doing her Masters of Business Administration (MBA) in India and Africa prepared her for life as a CEO.
What motivated you to get your MBA?
During my second year of graduate school at the University of California, Irvine, I remember sitting in a lab 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 big question mark: would my work have application to patients? I didn’t want to be a professor and continue that way.
A friend of mine who has an MBA suggested I do one too. I learned about the University of California Irvine Business School’s Healthcare MBA program and started six months later. Studying for an MBA was very different from working late in a lab. I was working in a team and solving interesting problems. Once we started looking at healthcare and biotechnology, I was able to see how they translated into real-world applications. It was an amazing shift in my own brain about what it meant to be a scientist and how what I was doing in the lab would lead two, three, four years down the road to treating diseases.
How did you use your MBA to work in industry?
Initially, I returned to academia in a business and science liaison role at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. I was the business and fundraising face of the Spinal Cord Injury Research and Rehabilitation Program in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, which involved direct contact with people in the hospital, including American actor Christopher Reeve, who came to the center for rehabilitation. It made me realize that I need to better understand the continuum of science and especially the other side of this continuum – people with diseases.
This led me to work as a consultant with government organizations in Africa and consulting with small and medium enterprises and charities. I then worked on a consulting team with the US Agency for International Development in India on its AIDS-relief projects. We have worked with health-focused staff at the US Embassy and the Indian Ministry of Health on projects related to children’s and women’s health. I also advised small companies focused on improving health in the country. I realized that in order to bring science to people, we need to be effective in how we move from the laboratory to the clinic. Business development is also important because many low-income countries cannot afford expensive drugs.
When you travel around the world, modern medical centers compare to countries where even having a freezer in a clinic is a luxury, you understand what most people in the world can’t afford – what it means to get a vaccine or a medicine – for those. Affected by diseases. After this international assignment, I realized that I needed a place to apply both my science and MBA education, and that led me to my current role at SMDG.
In the year Around 2011, Moen Mogimi, then director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology at the University of Copenhagen and the creator of the technology behind SMDG, approached me and told me that he had made an interesting discovery and needed support. Mogimi and I met at boarding school when we were teenagers in the UK. He was one of my friends. The technology can deliver neuroleptics to the brain, but requires further testing and validation. I was intrigued. Mogimi asked me to be the CEO of the company. I call myself CEO by accident because I didn’t seek this executive position. However, I am glad to have taken on this difficult task. Being a woman born in Iran and not having a pharmaceutical background are the issues that make my job challenging. Fewer women run biotech companies and even fewer get investment. As a female scientist and a woman in the life-science business world, I felt a lack of support.
What are the main differences between academia and working in industry?
The struggle to find funding or investment is obvious. There are great projects built on pre-clinical data that you know can get you to the clinic, but clinical trials are expensive and time-consuming. As a society we need to take a closer look at funding important research. I’m there every day, making the case to the investors, “Please fund us, because you can help us get this to patients.” So, whether you’re applying for a grant or giving investors a five-minute pitch face-to-face, consistency is an ongoing issue.
How has your international work experience prepared you for your current role?
I was a very shy and reserved person, and I hated speaking in front of others. For my current role, I had to be that motivated person, that was a mover, so that’s one of the skills I learned.
Another skill I learned was how to relate to others. For example, there are hundreds of rare diseases that affect humans. At BIO-Europe 2023, a biopharmaceutical partnership event in Basel, Switzerland, I met two people who had children with two rare childhood diseases, so this was real life. I think: What if this is my family member? Safety is important to us. We know we have an effective method, but does it have a good safety profile?
I run a small biotech company that is interested in bringing life-saving treatments to people with neurological disorders and children with neurological disorders.
I often wear the hat of a scientist or business woman, but I am also an advocate for people with disease. I give talks to patient groups about neurodegeneration. It is about education and promoting science to the public. You can’t be a scientist and be a patient advocate, especially if you’re working on diseases that affect people who are trying to understand why there are no treatments for them. I also meet family members of people with neurological disorders. I have an open policy where they can contact me.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing instead?
I used to be a writer, writing novels, that kind of fiction. I come from a family of writers and authors. I co-authored a nanomedicine book with Mogimi and also wrote a children’s book. In my free time, I do three things I love: yoga, meditation and gardening.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.