Advancing Human Health with Turnkey Biotech Incubator Brazen Bio
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Have you ever wondered why so many new biotech companies don't survive the first valley of death, which is the launch? Very likely it's the lack of access to labs, specialized equipment, advisors, and resources.
On the From Lab to Launch podcast we sat down with Shawn Carbonell, MD, Ph.D., and Brent Witgen, Ph.D., co-founders of Brazen Bio. Recently, Brent and Shawn launched Brazen Bio to help biotech founders advance human health.
Brazen Bio is building a turnkey incubator program with state-of-the-art laboratory access, including specialized equipment, technical support, expert advisors, and housing accommodations.
Based in Los Angeles, Brent and Shawn are planning to run the first cohort of founders through the accelerator incubator program this year.
- Why a biotech incubator with turnkey solutions is needed today
- Access to a network, like the advisory board at Brazen, can help launch companies faster
- Brazen is actively recruiting underrepresented founders with a goal to launch 100 companies in the next 5 years. First cohort for Brazen Bio is 2021.
- Access to state-of-the-art equipment, labs, and advisors should enable more startups to and innovation in the industry.
Music by keldez
We seek to transcribe the audio as accurately as possible. Please excuse any minor grammatical or misspellings.
Grant: Hi everyone, welcome to today's show. I'm really excited to share the conversation with Rob, CEO of Qualio, the number one rated easiest to use quality management system and the founders of Brazen Bio.
Have you ever wondered why so many new biotech companies don't survive the first valley of death, which is the launch? In many cases, it's the lack of access to laboratory equipment and advisers. Today's guests Shawn Carbonell, MD, PhD, and Brent Witgen, PhD, cofounded Branzen Bio to help biotech founders through that first valley of death and achieve their mission to advance human health.
Brazen Bio is building a really unique turnkey incubator program with state-of-the-art laboratory access including specialized equipment, technical support, expert advisers, and even housing accommodation. Let's get into the discussion. Enjoy.
Robert: Shawn, Brent, thank you so much for joining today. I had a lot of fun reading up on the background behind what you folks are doing. I think it’s really amazing, so thank you for joining and sharing your story.
I guess the big question I have is on where we sit as Qualio. My role is, I was fascinated with the whys and your thesis on this industry, how it's growing, how it's evolving. Maybe you could give me a bit of a background as to why Brazen Bio? What's the journey to doing this?
Shawn: Exactly. Thanks again, Robert. Brazen Bio, we exist to help biotech founders advance human health. We're really addressing two problems. Number one, unmet medical needs. There are many diseases out there where there are very few treatments or no treatments. On the other hand, there are many scientists, there are many students who may have solutions for those unmet needs.
Starting a biotech company is difficult. It's not like starting a tech company where you can just walk into a Starbucks with a laptop, use their wifi, and develop your NDP tapping on the keyboard. You need massive infrastructure. You need millions of dollars of equipment or at least access to it, a critical mass of people around you. It's a lot more complicated. It's no surprise that there aren't more biotech founders.
Basically, I'm reaching back to Shawn Carbonell 10 years ago when I was founding my first biotech company, OncoSynergy, and actually living through all these barriers and these valleys of death. Truly, the first valley of death in biotech startups is the launch, so that's what we're trying to address.
Robert: Really nicely stated, Shawn. I'm curious, Brent and Shawn, how did you folks meet? Do you both come from starting your own biotech companies? I'd be curious as to how that's evolved and how you're the right team for this.
Brent: Let me jump into that one. Shawn and I met over 20 years ago in academia when we were training. We've been friends, colleagues, collaborators for over two decades. When I joined the industry after my postdoc, I actually looked to join Shawn on his first venture, and we've kept in close contact and been looking for the right opportunity. While he was lifting off of his first startup with OncoSynergy, I had been in the industry on the big pharma side, and now it's time for us to come together with Brazen Bio.
Robert: Thanks for sharing. I'm curious, why do you folks see that now is the time for this?
Shawn: Like I said, 10 years ago when I was starting, it was very difficult. We didn't have the infrastructure that we have today in the WeWork rental labs. We're sitting in one right now, a great one BioLabs LA at the Lundquist Institute. Even then, it's even difficult just to get started.
We see a massive opportunity in that and that's part of our thesis. Most of the deals are these massive eight- or nine-figure Series A's that are going to Nobel Laureates or at least companies based on an idea from a Nobel Laureate who is led by a 20-year veteran pharma team. You see very few founders like me—a lone wolf founder—with an idea in a lab. I literally took an idea from the idea, I brought it to the bench, and 10 years later I raised $20 million. Just this year treated our first patient in Phase I in the clinical trial for glioblastoma, brain cancer.
I've seen it from start to finish. It should be easier and we're trying to make it easier for people.
Robert: I guess it can be made a lot shorter. I'm sure what you folks are doing is fascinating. I want to ask a bit more about the accelerator and incubator piece itself. I'll just say that I'm a big believer in this general trend. I think it's starting to become pretty clear that just like the last 15 years, we've seen these incubated and accelerated software companies have just grown at such a high rate and that the entire ecosystem has evolved.
It looks like we're seeing so many lessons from that industry being applied in here and I think so many analogs. It feels like the industry is kind of ready now for that type of support. I'm curious, outside of yourselves, how would you describe the landscape for incubators, for teams that are working on exciting things across bio?
Shawn: That's a great question. We're obviously not the first there. The university incubator, the local incubators through government, nonprofits, and of course your classic YC IndieBio accelerators, which are associated with a fund.
On the supply side, there are way more entrepreneurs than there are slots at these incubators. There's still a shortage in that regard. We're trying to address that, but we're also providing a differentiated product in that at Y Combinator, although you do get the bump of being a YC and those warm introductions.
Other than the check, that's pretty much all you get. You have to fend for yourself. With us, it's plug-and-play. We provide the infrastructure, from day one you get a lab. If you need housing here in LA, we provide housing. We also provide something unique as service layers—lab assistance, as well as admin assistance, and access to our intern.
It's a turnkey product that we're developing here. That's how we're differentiated as well as our unique network that we’ve put together including our senior fellowship. Certainly, I think there's a lot of room for other incubators to be in this space of course like I said. Again, there's so much unmet need in the healthcare space, diseases that need more attention.
One cool thing just to add on that, we also would like to partner with foundations and nonprofits interested in particular diseases so that they can potentially sponsor a fellowship through the accelerator incubator program, and that's one way that we can potentially work together to address the unmet needs.
Robert: With that in mind, it sounds like there's a lot of services and support there. What would the ideal team or candidate look like for that first cohort that you're building right now I believe?
Shawn: We are fairly flexible at this point. Our incubator is sort of an [...] if you will. It’s still a prototype, so it will be interesting what we'll be learning as we go. We envision three main groups of people.
Number one, current students, grad students, and undergrads. People who just finished a graduate degree and may be thinking about a postdoc. This could be more like a postdoctoral fellowship, entrepreneurial style. Then anyone in transition. Anyone from the industry, anyone from academia who has an idea and maybe some proof of concept or just a really good idea and the credibility to make it a reality.
Those are the people that we’re looking for. We also focus on the Rx-Dx, therapeutics and diagnostics, at this point because again, that's where the unmet need is. These other incubators, some of them are focused on a lot of consumer biotech and agricultural biotech, which is great, and biotech needs are huge right now. That's not to say that we won't look at a company like that, but we really want to address the unmet medical needs as well as wellness. Not just diseases, but also wellness.
Robert: First time people in a lot of cases that have had either promising research or ideas, you can put resources around those. You're looking for applications that aren’t really industrial processing applications but actual therapeutic use cases. That's really really helpful to know.
I know that you've been running some programs for funding this, maybe you can tell me about how you've been building interest, excitement, and bringing capital on board.
Shawn: Sure. We're pretty limited on what we can say about that because we are using regulation crowdfunding. We have a crowdfund open right now on wefunder.com. We provided you the link, and hopefully that will be on the show notes.
Robert: Absolutely, happy to.
Shawn: We're using that mechanism, and other than saying all the information you need is on that website, that's all we can really comment on. We're doing that very intentionally.
Robert: We fully understand.
Shawn: We're trying to build a community. Again, we see Brazen Bio as a big platform company, so we're trying to build a network. Each investor will become an evangelist for us so we see that as a massive positive
Robert: I get that. I'm curious, maybe this is something you can talk about. How do you see if things like Wefunder, we're talking about the infrastructure and costs of doing anything in this space? It's pretty spectacular that you folks were able to use vehicles like this to create the infrastructure you’re building to be able to support this generation of companies.
It's a far cry from a decade ago like you said where companies were IPOing before they were getting meaningful progress along the go-to-market funnel. Do you see this being something that’s part of the evolution of this industry, or does this just really fit what you're doing?
Shawn: We're drinking our own champagne if you will. We're going through it. We will encourage the companies that result from our incubator to do the same thing. We're also going to give them a lot of assistance with the grant applications so that they can get their early work done. I see it as being the new model, especially with the new rules that came into effect as of March 15, which the increased raise in limits.
Robert: There are other companies like Qualio that are out there now. We look at this life sciences tech stack similar to the rise of DevOps in a way it's supporting software companies is becoming now a really exciting space. Of course I would say that because we're in there, but you see the work being done in this re-platforming and these new supports we’ve built. How are we as a company like Qualio or other companies across this tech stack could support or be part of this?
Shawn: Brent, do you want to answer?
Brent: I would like to. In fact, this is a great question because there's so much general need across the space for entrepreneurs, bio entrepreneurs, founders. There's a lot to be said about simple awareness, getting involved, listening, asking questions, finding out where the gaps are, the skill sets, and expertise because there are ultimately synergies to be harvested.
I would say specifically being curious and asking about what you're working on, what your challenges are, and then offering to get involved somehow because something fruitful will spin out of it down the road.
Robert: The way I often liken this too is for lots of companies that I know that have gone through incubators or accelerators, it was incredibly valuable in addition to the program supports to be able to get the AWS credits, the Stripe processing credits, the HubSpot, if that's where you wanted to build your market automation on. A lot of those items really helped. I think it's a big opportunity to help encourage or support this next generation of companies.
We covered a lot here. If you had more time to go deeper on several of these, what I think might be interesting to ask is if you look forward to 5, 10 years, what would you like this to look like for us? How are you thinking about measuring success?
Shawn: As we say in our campaign, in five years we’d like to have helped launch 100 biotech companies. In a nutshell, that's it and then continue from there.
Our 10-year vision really is to put everything under one roof and create a vertically integrated accelerator, which includes everything from the beginning parts which is similar to the vision incubator currently. But including everything all up through Phase I Scale GMP Manufacturing, for instance, and then also regulatory and clinical trial capabilities, let's put that all under one roof and call that the Brazen Incubator. That's our 10-year vision.
Robert: With that, I'm curious. You folks are based in LA, which is a place I like to spend time in when I can, a lot of people do particularly here in Northern California. How do you think the location affects the type of company or how you run the incubator because you're outside of some of the really traditional hubs. I think there are arguments you can make on how that might actually be an advantage. I'm curious how you think of that.
Brent: Let me answer that one because there's certainly a bridge between Northern and Southern California. LA is right in the middle. There's so much hunger and appetite to grow the biotech community. We're overwhelmed with the interest and commitments with the locals, the academia, the tech space, as well all the bio entrepreneurs who are hungry to get involved, so I think we're positioned well geographically.
Shawn: Plus palm trees and sunshine.
Robert: Yeah. As somebody from Ireland, I'm all for palm trees and sunshine when I can have it. I know we're getting near the end of it, but one thing I read about that I thought might be interesting is, you folks have an advisory board in capacity too.
I think you might have mentioned it briefly at the beginning, but I think people underestimate the impact that is to get access to people that can unlock things. Maybe before we finish up, can you tell me a bit about that—how you've created that advisory board and how do you think that can help companies?
Shawn: This all goes to the turnkey solution. We have two levels. We have the Brazen Advisory Board, which is a formal advisory board for the company, but then we have the Senior Fellowship, which is the advisory board for the entrepreneurs.
These are all people we've worked with. I've worked with OncoSynergy, my previous company. I've worked with a lot of consultants in my days both terrible and great, and obviously, we've only asked the great ones to join us. Everyone that's on the Senior Fellowship, we personally worked with and we like working with.
That's a huge asset. It runs the gamut from CMC expertise to development, academia, and medicine. We even have media folks and commercialization folks, and one person in quality, and that can grow. That's part of the solution. It's sort of an honorary pro bono consulting group (if you will), council. Also, not just their direct expertise but their network, so there's another layer beyond that. We think it's a massive value add.
Robert: I would agree. There's one question I forgot to add before we sign off. Brazen Bio sounds great, but why Brazen? Is there something behind that name?
Shawn: There's a couple of layers there as well. You do have to be bold to do this thing. When I started OncoSynergy back in 2010, 2011, I was at UCSF so I was surrounded by other people who wanted to do the same thing. Of those people (and there were dozens), I only know three people who actually got funded. It could be the person but also circumstances.
Again, we're trying to solve the external aspects, but you do have to have a certain brazen will to move forward, the persistence, the patience to do this for 10 years knowing that it's going to be difficult, the ups and downs. I almost quit the company twice because it was so difficult. That's part of it. It's also a throwback to my Oxford College Brasenose, which used to be known as Brazen Nose. There's some history.
Robert: There is. I appreciate that and I can echo the difficulty in getting some of that research funding. We had somebody speaking to us on the podcast recently as well. It's really difficult. Nice to see you folks upping peer stat.
Last question, signing off question. I think it's nice to ask if you could write a tweet and send it to everybody in the industry that they would read, what would it say?
Shawn: Are you brazen?
Robert: That's cool. I like that. It’s short, so you don't need the expanded character set.
Shawn: I don't need the 280. Don’t need multiple parts. It's just #areyoubrazen?
Robert: Shawn, Brent, thank you very much for this. We're adding the links to the Wefunder program. I’ll also add those other elements to the show notes. Last thing, where can people go to learn more? Is it there or someone else should go check you out?
Shawn: Brazen.bio or brazenbio.com, and we're also in all of the social media as Brazen Bio.
Robert: Awesome. We'll get those added too and I'll make sure to subscribe and follow your progress. Thank you very much for joining. It's been a real pleasure. I'm looking forward to sharing this with everybody.
Shawn: Awesome. Thanks so much, Robert.
Brent: Thanks, Robert.