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Q&A With Brazen Bio: Why You Should Care About Scientist CEOs

In 2011, scientist and entrepreneur Shawn Carbonell dropped out of his neurosurgery residency at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. But he didn’t leave empty-handed. 

Armed with 15 years of research from his time in academia, he co-founded OncoSynergy, a biotech startup pursuing brain cancer treatments.

A decade later, OncoSynergy would go on to treat its first human patient with the drug fueled by that research. But it wasn’t easy—Carbonell spent seven years in front of venture firms who wanted to expand the drug’s use case to other forms of cancer, which would mean bigger returns for them but didn’t match his vision for the company. 

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After being burned by the venture capital system and spending many years at his startup, he left and co-founded incubator program Brazen Bio in 2021 to help scientists spin their research out of labs and into the private markets. The startup quickly designed Brazen Capital, a small venture capital fund, and Brazen Creators Program, a social media program that pulled scientists, often siloed in their labs and their research, into the public sphere to share what they’re doing. 

Carbonell sat down with Crunchbase to talk about the Brazen programs, being part of a budding biotech ecosystem in Los Angeles, and bootstrapping during economic uncertainty. 

The following was edited for length and clarity.

What made you want to start Brazen Bio?

Carbonell: I wanted to create the program I wish I had 10 years ago when I was starting my first biotech startup, OncoSynergy. I was here in Beverly Hills, I just dropped out of my neurosurgery residency at Cedars-Sinai and I had no idea what to do. And there was nothing here in LA for biotech. I think UCLA might have just started its first accelerator. This is back in 2009. So I had to move to San Francisco, and luckily I had some good luck up there and obviously found a good co-founder.

What made you want to start Brazen Bio in the LA area specifically?

Shawn Carbonell at a Brazen Bio event.
Shawn Carbonell at a Brazen Bio event.

Carbonell: I love LA, I mean, it’s part of the reason why I matched at Cedars-Sinai. Had some family here. I was married to my co-founder, got divorced and got burned out from [OncoSynergy]. I needed to take some time, get a little R&R and LA was beckoning. I didn’t know if I was going to stay or not, but here I am three years later.

There’s Brazen Bio. What drove you to create Brazen Capital and Brazen Creators Program after that? 

Carbonell: It’s all part of the same master plan: All companies have to become media companies. And so that’s where the Brazen Creators came from, just trying to get more awareness. We’re partnering with up-and-coming creators on TikTok and Instagram. Now we have seven in the program and they get equity in Brazen Bio every month. The whole purpose of Brazen Bio—the Brazen-verse, if you will—is to help more scientists become CEOs, and do what I’ve done. Get their news and findings the fuck out of the lab and into the real world so we can help patients. So it’s all about helping patients and helping founders help patients.

You’ve brought up a couple of things I wanted to touch on. The idea that all companies need to be media companies—can you tell me a little bit about why you have that ethos with biotech?

Carbonell: I started microblogging on Instagram in January 2014, and I started discovering brain cancer patients almost immediately. That’s what my cancer drug is geared toward. I just saw the power of building this community, these people that I have had no other chance of reaching, and it’s been amazing. So after seven years of Instagram, TikTok recruited me and that’s why I was on TikTok (and now have 660,000 followers). I found my lead investor for Brazen Bio off of TikTok. I found my first investment for Brazen Capital from TikTok. So it speaks for itself. I think the large companies have tons of money and are spending millions and millions on ads and such, that’s one thing. But I think the startups that’ll win in the future are those that create a community online, that can engage and sort of spread the gospel, if you will.

You also mentioned the scientist CEO. I know that’s one of your goals with Brazen Bio. Can you tell me a little bit about why the scientist CEO thing appeals to you?

Carbonell: You know, not everyone is cut out to be a public CEO, but assuming this is the scientist’s Ph.D. project or postdoc project, no one knows that science better than that person. Down the road, maybe they’re not the right fit when the company is larger. But in order to get out into the real world, I think you need to have that passion. I just cite my own experience. It was incredibly difficult. I had no experience in biotech. I had no connections to anything in the industry in terms of funding. There’s a lot of luck and naivete and it was just me not giving up. My goal in life was to create a meaningful medicine for brain cancer. And I thought I would achieve that when I was 75, and I achieved that when I was in my 40s. It’s because I was persistent and patient and I had the passion to do something for this patient community. That’s why I succeeded, because there are many times I could have given up, there were many times I almost did give up. And so that’s why you need a scientist CEO.

I was at a showcase for early-stage biotech startups a few months ago. And because we’re heading toward some uncertain economic times, I noticed some investors were more wary of inexperienced founders than maybe they normally would have been.

Carbonell: Yeah, if you’re a professional investor, that’s just reducing risk. That’s just almost common sense, that’s your job. What we’re saying is, OK, that’s fine if you just want to make money, but how about the patients? These technologies are just sitting in laboratories unrealized. There’s always going to be investors who are just looking to make money, which is fine, because again, it’s their job to create these financial arbitrage machines to IPO in five years. That’ll happen regardless. What we’re trying to do is start a new movement. So it’s a valid point, but again we think scientists are the best people to do it.

How do you find the right people?

Carbonell: Yeah, so that’s part of the whole creating a media company. Brazen Bio has made a big splash in LA. We’re virtually unknown everywhere else in the country other than maybe New York and Boston and San Diego. It’s really an awareness problem. I don’t want to make a crazy comparison, but I liken it to Y Combinator back in 2005 when it was just a Cambridge program and only nerds really knew about it. We’re not even at that stage yet, so we’re still trying to create awareness, which is also why we have the Brazen Creators. We’re just going to build this thing from the ground up. We have a groundswell on Discord, we have 700 folks in there. We’re in early days, but eventually we hope to become a brand in biotech.

Have your ethos or goals or strategies at all changed now that we’re sort of bracing for an economic downturn?

Carbonell: A little bit, I guess. Our sweet spot is pre-incorporation to pre-seed. We really want to be the first check in and help incorporate companies. At that early stage, macroeconomics don’t impact us much and the deals seem to be doing okay. One thing we decided not to do is another Brazen fellowship cohort like we had last year. Instead, our strategy is going to be, at least for the next year or so, to make individual investments.

What gaps do you think Brazen Bio is filling in this market?Carbonell: I’ve done it. My GP partner at Brazen Capital, Monica Berrondo, has also done it. We’re both scientist CEOs, we both took research from our laboratories. So we’ve actually done it, and we’ve done it for a decade. We’re scientists first, founders second, investors third. And we can see it from those three angles and a lot of professional VCs can’t see it that way.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

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