Carsten Thiel on The Nice Guys on Business Podcast
#950 Carsten Thiel: Innovation & Entrepreneurship in the Biotech Industry
Doug Sandler: Carsten Thiel is here, and we’re gonna find out why science makes our lives better. Carsten is the leader in the biotech industry who has lived and worked in seven countries and two continents. And I understand in the last couple of months he’s actually lived on a couple of continents, just in the last couple of months. He’s been around for awhile and he’s been a key driver in the modern biotech world, turning scientific innovation into benefits for patients in need, I’m excited to have him here. We’re going to build a connection between science, biotech, being an entrepreneur, and being a great business guy. Welcome Carsten, to the Nice Guys on Business podcast.
Carsten Thiel: Hey, Doug, nice to be here, thank you.
Doug: Hey, I’m happy to have you here, and in a lot of the information and research that I’ve done in the last couple of weeks since we’ve had you scheduled, I really was trying to figure out what is exactly the connection between, in some cases, organizations that you’ve led, you know, multi-billion dollar organizations, many hundreds of million dollar organizations, and entrepreneurs, who are traditionally, not quite as expansive as you are, so help bridge the connection for just a second, between running a large biotech organization, and being an entrepreneur.
Carsten: Oh yeah, absolutely. So, when I got into science, this was in the early 90’s, and in those days large pharma companies were also financing big research departments. So most of the innovation one way or another came out of those large companies. Then something happened throughout the 90’s that shifted entrepreneurship literally into a different direction. So, now, twenty, thirty years later, half of all the breakthrough, innovative therapies in biotech are coming out of very, very small companies. In some cases it happens that they take it all the way, and register the product themselves, and launch it themselves, but in most cases it is other companies who see the potential, and the benefits that the therapy can have for patients, and buy the product.
Doug: So tell me a little bit about, share your thoughts about being an innovative leader, especially in the business of science, because you wouldn’t necessarily think that science is all about innovation, I mean the discovery part is all about innovation but when it comes down to it, isn’t science just making sure that zeroes and ones all match up?
Carsten: I think that science puts you in two separate camps. You can either look for minor modifications, so in the world of biotech that would mean you’re using an existing model of a molecule that is well known for its efficacy and safety, then you modify it a little bit, you don’t deviate too much from the known features and benefits, and try to make it a bit better. And then there’s the others, who are going a different path, trying something really new, who take a lot more risk, and potentially develop a breakthrough innovation. And I would say something really important has happened over the last ten to fifteen years that much more people are willing to take the risk, and see if you’re not open to really developing something completely new, you’re just making a smaller difference to what we do. And it’s amazing, the reason why so much has happened in the last ten to fifteen years.
Doug: Tell me a little bit about, maybe the world of entrepreneurs, many of our listeners, many of our community is based upon most of them being entrepreneurs, business leaders, owners of companies, tell me a little bit about biotech, and really what the definition of biotech is versus science, because biotech for me is really a word that I only started hearing in the last ten, fifteen, maybe twenty years ,but when I grew up and was going to high school and college, you know, botany and biology, those were all sciences. So tell me a little bit about what biotech is.
Carsten: So biotech is essentially using the elements of nature to design new innovative therapies. Fifty years ago, when penicillin was developed, aspirin, other compounds, this was chemistry. Small molecules that have a very low molecular weight. But then this happened, and it came with the discovery of DNA in the 60’s, and the first large molecules that have essentially a human structure, so proteins as if our own cells produce it, we were able in the 90’s to manufacture those through fermentation or other biotech manufacturing processes. So this is the big ship. So why is it important, because these products are much more tolerable, they match a lock and key mechanism that nature has developed in our bodies. It’s really exciting. And today we have all the tools to do those things.
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Doug: So help me for just a second, and I know this must sound like there’s potentially an obvious answer to you that may not be as obvious to me, tell me what biotech, what benefits it can have for us, the normal people who don’t really understand the big umbrella of biotech, but want to understand a bit more, because it is fascinating, I just don’t know where it is where you touch our everyday lives.
Carsten: Yeah, so I would say the biggest impact I can see is treating diseases, and diagnosing diseases. And the beauty of biotech is that we can design today, therapies for diseases we were not able to in the past, and much faster. We used to screen 16,000 small molecules to find one that is effective and safe to use. Today, using biotech, we can design molecules, and they are well tolerated, and drive a specific therapeutic benefit in the patient. That’s the difference.
Doug: I see, and again you started talking about how you can design the molecules, and I started thinking about Frankenstein molecules for just a quick second, I assume there are some risks involved in biotech, is it the mutation of the molecules, the creation of the molecules, what are the risks involved in that, I’m really curious.
Carsten: I think this is really well managed today. And the tools that we are using to produce biotech products in large scale, are well controlled, and carry literally no risk to the environment or to the people working in it. So I don’t want this to be confused with, what you mentioned, Frankenstein or providing a whole organ to it, or replacing whole body parts, it’s not like this. What I’m talking about, microscopically small proteins that we produce, and that you give extremely small doses to the patients. And the important thing is that they’re three-dimensional structures that the body produces anyway, like antibodies, your body produces everyday, billions and billions of antibodies. So in a sense, we mimic the same thing, just outside the body, then purify it and provide it.
Doug: So in a number of the articles and interviews that you have done over the last several years, I see that you’re very involved in also the patient side of things too, it’s not just about the science, it’s about the person too. So maybe share some of your philosophy when it comes to that intersection again where science, risk, and people all come together, because I think that you have a very unique perspective on that, the compassion, the empathy.
Carsten: Yeah, you know, some time ago I was asking myself what is it that can motivate people from very different angles and origins, to work together in developing a breakthrough technology. And it’s not money, for the most part, it’s not necessarily even career. The thing that I found most motivating for the people around me was the purpose to help patients. So in my own career, that led me to go to smaller and smaller companies. It’s inevitable, you meet with patients, you hear their stories, and it’s often heartbreaking. So over my own career, I’ve moved into rare diseases, because I think we have common diseases, like diabetes, or asthma, pretty well under control, they’re well treated, like hypertension, but rare diseases have been overlooked. And both the U.S. government, and the European Union have put rules in place to incentivize the development and treatment of rare diseases, but there’s still a long way to go. So, what I looked at was patients who are suffering from a rare disease like, to just give you an idea, like one in a million, and in those cases where someone is suffering from a rare disease, they need seven years to get to the accurate diagnosis. And for some of these, because these diseases can be very serious, you don’t even make it to your seventh year, because the mortality is very high. So I’ve dedicated my own energy, my time, my life, to developing therapies for these patients with rare diseases. And it’s something very important. We think probably, seven thousand rare and ultra-rare diseases, and if you add it up it in the U.S., it affects thirty million people, so it’s not a small population.
Doug: Talk to me for just a moment, thinking on the majority of our community being entrepreneurs or business leaders that are out there, share your thoughts on business operations, process, people. How much of your time as a leader of these biotech organizations is spent, day-to-day, dealing with the science, and how much is spent on the patient and/or people?
Carsten: I would say it’s probably eighty percent patients and people.
Doug: Wow, that’s interesting. I would put someone who is in the world of biotech, I would not expect that, that’s amazing, maybe share some of your thoughts on that.
Carsten: Yeah, I can. That has also to do with me personally, I have a scientific education. And at the end of my PhD in molecular biology, I was reflecting on what I should do next, and I felt that I’m probably not the best researcher, but that I love science. And maybe I don’t have the patience to work on a molecule for ten to fifteen years, but what really excites me is to bring such an innovation to the benefit of patients. So what we do is we try to figure out the patient’s journey, and what we mean by that, if a patient is suffering from, for example, swollen lymph nodes, where does he go first? Which doctor does he see? And where do they try and find information? And the better we understand this patient’s journey, which may start with a family doctor or a GP, and ends up with a hematologist, the better we can direct our educational programs to help those patients in this moment when they have nowhere to turn, desperate, and shocked with their diagnosis, to understand what they suffer from, and who they can turn to. It’s very rewarding, and probably the best days of my professional life to speak with these patients, listen to them, and hear their personal stories, and it’s amazing what you discover, Doug, the resilience ,the grace to deal with a rare disease, it’s something very, very special.
Doug: You mentioned as a part of your answer, the word education, and I love that, because I see, again in doing the research on you, I see so much about patient and provider information, so maybe just share your thoughts on the importance of patient and provider education in carrying out your mission.
Carsten: Yeah, I think a few years ago, our industry was relying on advertisement, and in a way that’s intellectual fast-food versus what medical education is giving you, much deeper understanding and knowledge. And so, I don’t think our future lies in advertisement in biotech and in rare diseases, I think our future lies in people getting accurate information and medical education in an easy way. And technology today has made such a difference for it. So for you audience, you entrepreneurs, it’s not just developing science, and progressing it, it’s about thinking how do I bring it across to those people who need it.
Doug: Mm, very good, very good. So take me back to your just graduation college self, and provide some advice for that guy who’s just getting out of school about what is about to happen in the upcoming twenty, thirty plus years that you’re going to partake in.
Carsten: I think one of the best things to happen to me was, the current CEO of Angen, he spoke to me, and he said Carsten, I think this century is about biotech, and in about eighty years, people are going to smile about diseases that we needed to deal with and we couldn’t treat, and we couldn’t cure, and it’s all history. And I look back on my own life, and when I was eighteen, it wasn’t really a good environment around me to help me choose what profession I wanted to take. Do I want to be lawyer, an architect, a doctor, a mathematician, and in a sense, I probably could have entered into any of those, so today I think the best thing we can to is to help people open their eyes, and to see the potential in science, and the difference it can make on their lives in entering it.
Doug: So as we start to wrap up our interview, I’m really curious, you’ve had so many levels of success in your life, and so many areas of accomplishment, and from organization to organization as I see and do research on you, how well you have scored in all of these companies, and how you have been known as an innovative leader, one that has not only dealt with the science but the market side of it also, which is totally a 180-degree for many of the leaders in the organizations, especially in biotech, you get someone who understands the importance of marketing, but never really getting their feet on the ground, or walking the walk, and you’ve certainly done that. In spite of all of those things, the successes that you’ve had, what’s the one thing, be relatable for my audience of entrepreneurs, including myself that are still working on improving certain things that we do on a day-to-day basis, what’s something that you’re still working on improving about yourself.
Carsten: I would say this, never stopping to learn, and surrounding myself with people that are better at what they do than I am. And if you’re an entrepreneur, you gotta surround yourself with a great finance person, a great RND head, a great business development person, and there’s really nobody who’s awesome in all of those things, and how do you distinguish good from great if you are not an expert in a field? And I think curiosity, an open mind, and you know getting out there in front of it, and building an amazing team of people who are better than myself is probably the best recipe of success that I can think of.
Doug: I’m really curious is there a book in your future? You have so much experience and maybe I missed it if I haven’t seen it on Amazon or somewhere else, I’m curious do you have within you a book that you feel coming out?
Carsten: I’m thinking about it, I haven’t done it yet, I think I’ve just been so busy that I didn’t have enough of those moments to sit down peacefully and put it on paper. But you’re provoking and inspiring a thought, I may do it.
Doug: Well it is very interesting and if you ever decide, we being podcast producers here at The Nice Guys on Business, if you ever decide to go into the podcast world, I’ll tell you I can only imagine the long list of guests that you would have, especially in the position that you have been in, getting CEO’s of these multi-billion dollar organizations to chat with you — a little bit about biotech, a little bit about business, you probably would have a really good audience to listen to your message and your inspiration as well.
Carsten: Thank you so much, that would be awesome.
Doug: So I very much appreciate your inspiration, you are truly a leader that leads by example, I loved having you on the show, chatting with you a little bit and I’m sure my community will have very positive feedback, I’m looking forward to that, and I want to get you back on the show once we’ve gotten some feedback because I know our community will come back with questions that they want to ask you, so if it’s okay, I’d love to invite you back on the show so you can answer some of the questions that they may have.
Carsten: Oh, that would be wonderful, I’d love that.
Doug: My pleasure, my pleasure. Thanks, Carsten again for being on the show today, and for sharing your message, and all of your wisdom.
Carsten: All right take care, have a good day.