I do the things that I do because I want to improve the possibilities of what it means to be human. I want to improve this human condition that we are all suffering with, as it frustrates me greatly that more is not being done.
“I’m afraid that my verbal language is going to be full of, you know, incomplete sentences and everything else, so if you can correct me and make me sound more intelligent than I actually am I’d appreciate that greatly.”
The conversation with Sean O’Sullivan at this point is less than three minutes long and I have already been given an impossible task. The entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist is humble and warm, an unexpected combination for someone with his record of achievements. He is soft spoken yet assertive, and cycles between concise, technical answers and whimsical, minutes-long passages. During a recent event, his red pants and red shoes combo speak to his eccentricity, which is normally subdued and only becomes truly apparent when you find out that besides being an engineer, entrepreneur and VC – a combination that seems almost commonplace these days – Sean’s also a rock guitarist, a filmmaker and a pilot.
He is the founder of SOSV, a leading venture firm in early stage high tech startups, and home to the two biggest business accelerators biotech has known: IndieBio, based in San Francisco, and RebelBio, recently relocated from Cork to London. Sean’s academic background, however, is not related to life sciences. Many VCs tend to be deathly scared of anything that needs more than a smartphone to work. So I had to begin with an obvious question – Why biotech?
BIOTECH AS A PATH TO CHANGE
“I guess you could say that this is not an unusual thing,” he muses, “that people that have achieved a lot in IT or in any other field, often actually go after these seemingly intractable societal problems: Bill Gates has gone after a lot of things well outside of IT, from global climate change to the eradication of certain diseases, and there are many others that similarly want to use the leverage that they have gained in life to try to see changes.”
“I think that any entrepreneur,” Sean tells me, “or anyone who’s trying to achieve some sort of change in the world and society, looks towards the most frustrating problems that they encounter and the things that they want to see changed, and then they try to set out and make those changes.
The reality is that there is so much opportunity in life sciences right now and not enough is being done to take advantage of the incredible moment in history that we are now standing on: These crossroads where we can really take full advantage of both IT advances, as well as genetic understandings, and really help change the landscape for what’s possible.”
This can be an excellent answer in and on its own, but Sean’s interest in biotechnology takes on many more layers when taking his unusual life story into account.
“When I look to personal tragedies that I have suffered directly and indirectly in my life, a lot of those relate to life science and medical and biological frailties, as well as insufficient responses, insufficient understanding and implementation when trying to fix problems with treatments of the human condition.” He pauses. “I have a mother who’s diabetic and died of Alzheimer’s disease. I have a son who’s autistic, who has struggled to be able to speak. I have other relatives that have struggled with other issues including addictions and whatnot, things that we see throughout our society. We see these problems every day: You walk through a city and you see these problems on the faces of the people that we come across, and on the population of people that are struggling in the streets, in medical institutions that do not have good solutions to their problems.”
He goes back to his initial response, and everything ties together.
“I look at that as one of the biggest areas of need for society; and not just of need but of opportunity to actually change the status quo.”
APPROACHING BIOLOGY AS AN OUTSIDER
In my quest to stalk, or rather, research Sean before the interview, I come across a recurring theme: his deep appreciation for technical knowledge, technical co-founders, and generally having a highly detailed understanding of everything that goes on in the technical side of a certain topic. Which is precisely what makes his approach to life sciences interesting and quite engineer-y.
“It’s a very, very deep field, and one that I’m only scratching the surface of, but I do read voraciously on the topic.” Sean says animatedly, like reading highly technical papers is the highlight of his day – and really, it wouldn’t surprise me if it ranks way up there. He tells me he’s taking molecular biology classes at Princeton right now, and that he reads one or two books a month in different topics within the field: he mentions biochemistry, brain-gut connection, microbiome. “There’re so many fantastic books and works in this space, since there’s been so much going on recently there’s a lot of really current information that’s quite fascinating.”
“I do find myself very curious about the field, and that makes it very engaging. And of course, we are investing on the order of around 50 life science companies a year, so I’m finding out from the mouths of the scientists themselves that are doing some of the leading research how these breakthroughs are happening.”
Sean remarks that he’s not actually on the selection committee for the companies SOSV selects for their life sciences programs, but that he does indicate certain areas that he’s very interested in and would like to see SOSV pursuing. This, he says, enables them to get a great combination of the best current opportunities in the whole of the life sciences spectrum, as well as the specific opportunities in the focus areas they have chosen – a full array of the ones now’s the best time to go after.
As an alumna from one of SOSV’s life sciences accelerators, Rebel Bio, I can attest to the usefulness of their programs as well as the rocket like speed they can get you at if you’re willing to give it your all. This is how Sean describes their unique tactic:
“We have a business process approach to make it more possible for startups to get further faster in this area through the accelerator model – which, if you look at it, it’s a model that didn’t make sense for life sciences, since it generally took a life sciences company an investment of 10 million dollars to be able to make an impact. It’s not uncommon that a first round of financing for a life sciences startup is like a series B round for an IT company, in the tens of millions of dollars. However, by taking the accelerator model and applying it to life sciences, and by leveraging the resources of these multimillion dollar lab facilities that we were able to either create, build out or work within, we are able to help companies with a much smaller amount of capital achieve milestones that make later stage life sciences investors think that it’s worth taking a punch on helping these companies get to the next level.
That was not happening in the life sciences world before SOSV stepped in and created these accelerators. We were the first to set them up in the life sciences area, we now run the number one most active accelerator in the form of IndieBio in San Francisco, and the number two most active in the form of Rebel Bio in Cork, now London. So that is just a function of applying the capital in the way that we are doing it and building ecosystems and communities in these areas that will hopefully help us enable more startup founders to be in front of the people who can help fund them and get them further.”
They do, however, know that throwing money at a problem is not enough to solve it. The problem has to be picked right, too, and they have a very specific way of doing that as well.
“As Arvind Gupta from Indiebio says, our rule is that the applications we’re targeting either affect one billion people, or present a billion dollar market.
Because there are practicalities here that we have to face as well. The reason we need a market opportunity that is quite large is that VCs need to see a return on their capital, especially when that capital takes many years to return; so for the purpose of practicality if they’re going to be putting in millions of dollars and waiting for many years, the marketplace needs to be correspondingly large, to even out the challenge and risk they entail.
What we’re trying to do throughout all of our accelerators is to de-risk companies in a way where later stage venture capitalists feel like it is now worth a try, when it wasn’t before: where they can see that the team has produced results, that they are onto something that is also showing some corresponding market traction, even if it’s early. That is something that early stage entrepreneurs in life sciences haven’t been able to do previously because generally they’d be working as postdocs or the equivalent in industry and they don’t have an operational role that’s sufficiently advanced for people to be able to trust that they can operate, run and build a business; so by supporting companies in such an early stage, we help extend the track record of the entrepreneur to the point where they can be believed by investors.”
“So basically,” I tell him, “you are taking people who have been cooped up in academia, and opening up their possibilities, or as the folks at Rebel Bio say – turning scientists into entrepreneurs.”
“You said it so much better than I did!” Sean laughs. I high five myself internally. Mission accomplished.
BRANCHING OUT, FAILING AND OTHER MOTIVATIONS
I am a person of varied interests that I love to pursue in parallel with my biotech work. This has gotten me many detractors and a vast array of criticism – sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive. And since nothing was stopping me from using my interview time with Sean as an on-the-go therapy, I selfishly asked him a question that applied to myself. What was the point of branching out, if there was a point at all?
“I think most successful entrepreneurs are continuously reinventing themselves” Sean says and I breathe a little bit easier. “You have to be curious: You have to be looking beyond the walls of the box in order to see the new possibilities and new futures.”
He stops for a moment and sighs.
“Listen, I don’t have to work for a living in order to continue to survive. I made enough money when I was 28 years old when my first company went public, for me to not have to worry about where the next meal ticket comes from. I do the things that I do because I want to improve the possibilities of what it means to be human. I want to improve this human condition that we are all suffering with, as it frustrates me greatly that more is not being done.”
His voice softens, and it feels like caught somewhere between a declaration and a prayer.
“I find it wonderful, and very gratifying, to be working with so many people who are at the head of their fields like the entrepreneurs from our programs all over the world. To be able to share in their knowledge and help craft possibilities and open doors in the ways that we can is a very enjoyable pursuit.
This is not work; this is love, that’s what I do it for.”
We stop for a moment, and he shifts the topic just slightly, but keeps the solemn tone.
“Despite all the failures – and I’ve had more failures than most, because I’ve gone out on many limbs – it’s just worth it to try. Despite sometimes going after things for years and years and running into brick wall after brick wall, it’s about picking yourself up and trying again. You’re familiar with this battle,” he says. It’s like the quote from Ghandi: “First, they ignore you. Then, they ridicule you, Then, they attack you, and then, you win. Now, Ghandi was saying you always win – but actually, you don’t always win. But in order for you to win, you have to go through all those stages.”
He laughs. “I have a twist on the expression ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’: my version of it is, what doesn’t kill you makes you more alive. I just think that we have to continue to stretch the boundaries in order to move the world forward. That is a lesson that I think all of us are aware of, and it’s just something I take very seriously in what I do. And it is fun, too. It is fun if you can do it and while the game continues to work. It doesn’t always work in every circumstance, but hopefully it works enough times so that we can continue to play it and continue making big, big changes in people and their future.”
“That is what leads to sustained change across the planet: just keeping with it.” Sean says as we wrap up the interview. “I keep my fingers crossed on all of this, but I do believe that the therapies, the technologies, the capabilities that are coming from the companies coming through Rebel Bio and IndieBio will result in millions of lives being saved every year. Sometimes impact takes time, but it arrives. I have no doubt that through the hundreds of companies that we are supporting over the years, every life on the planet will be affected by our work. That said, we recognize fully that we are only a supporting player in this act. The entrepreneurs are the ones that are really doing the work, they are the ones that are creating this opportunity for the planet in the first place, and they are the ones that we love to support.
We love the work that we do – I think that’s what makes it worth continuing to fight on.”
This Skype interview was conducted on September 30th, 2017.