By: Annette Perez & Jan Mazotti Issue: Innovation, Growth, Job Creation Section: Business
An Interview with CEO Dr. Shadi Farhangrazi, Biotrends International
Whether you find her giving advice to a CEO or president of a start-up, working with a larger company on strategy, giving advice to major NGOs, or teaching classes on innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Denver, one thing is certain, Dr. Shadi Farhangrazi is passionate about innovation. “That is how we create the future. That is what the future is about. It is how we improve lives all over the world,” she says.
Dr. Shadi is a neuroscientist, biochemist, an HIV/AIDS expert, strategist, entrepreneur, international speaker, professor, and expert in the area of innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the president and managing director of Biotrends International, the founder of the Biotrends Foundation and three other life sciences and innovation companies, and founder and co-editor of Biotrends.org. Dr. Shadi is also an adjunct professor at the University of Denver at Daniels College of Business, College of Engineering and Computer Science, and the Women’s College. Dr. Shadi was born in Tehran, Iran but grew up in Europe where she attended boarding schools in England before moving to the U.S. She is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, is an advisor to USAID and the U.S. Department of State, and advises multiple multinational and small life sciences companies. In late 2010, Dr. Shadi founded a new initiative called Innovate America, a project focused on promoting entrepreneurship and innovation by working with companies across the U.S. on job creation in innovation in emerging technologies. Dr. Shadi has spent considerable time in Africa and Asia an several countries working with schools, orphanages and several organizations focusing on women’s health, childhood diseases and women and entrepreneurship. She is currently working on a book on her experiences over the last five years. ICOSA had the distinct pleasure of visiting with Dr. Shadi about her work and ideas.
ICOSA: Why so much talk about innovation?
Shadi: I believe in the impact of science and innovation. I imagine a future that is better than today, and then I go to work every day, intent on creating that world. The future is not about one single area of technology. It is about people from various sectors talking about the impact that their technologies could have on the world. For example, information technology has had a major impact on our lives. Look at social networking — Facebook and Twitter — and how we communicate across the world with each other on the Internet and on Skype. The future will progress by incorporating many different innovations — innovations in life sciences, information technology, green technology, and the space industry. Medical research will help to improve the way medicine is practiced and how we treat patients, perhaps even how to prevent disease and scan for illnesses before the first symptoms occur. Or innovations in green energy could provide options for other alternative sources of fuel and energy for our homes, cars, and lives. So you see why I am so excited about science and innovation — I love what I do!
ICOSA: What kind of work do you do with the companies?
Shadi: I get calls from entrepreneurs who need help with their company. Many times, these highly educated and accomplished individuals have the technical background to start a business, but they need help with the actual business structure and operation. Being both a scientist and business person allows me to go back and forth — to translate the science and also translate the business. I can sit at the table with the scientists and look at the data, and sometimes even suggest experiments, but I can also help the company in meeting business challenges. This trend is not going away. In fact, more technologists and scientists are starting companies, and they do not have the time to go and get an MBA to understand the discrete underpinnings of running an organization.
Being an entrepreneur myself, I understand the different stages of creating and growing businesses. When I started my company, I had been through years of schooling and training, but nothing in my background had prepared me for my life as an entrepreneur. There are a lot of fears and obstacles to becoming a successful entrepreneur — so now I share “real life” stories as I teach entrepreneurship and coach people through the entrepreneurial journey. My associates and I assist companies in building realistic business plans and models, to grow here and abroad. We help companies with market introduction, building good management teams, and bringing the necessary resources to grow the business.
ICOSA: Many people argue that if oil prices drop, or if we develop better ways to extract oil and gas, we should not continue to invest in green technologies or alternative sources of energy. What do you say to that?
Shadi: The overall world population is growing. And in many countries like India, China, and Brazil even the middle class population is growing. All of these people are requesting, and sometimes demanding, access to clean water and more effective energy options. I recently spent a month in India interviewing companies and spending time with one of their largest banks, ICICI bank, and the growth models for the country were staggering, but not overly surprising. As our world gets smaller, we will need more general resources and sources for energy — that is a fact. And, if we want to be in a position that we are not competing for resources in terms of simple supply and demand, we must invest in alternative sources of energy production and transmission. The world needs multiple sources of energy and fuel, and it is part of the reason why many oil and gas companies have started to refer to themselves as energy companies — because they are investing in alternative energy solutions. But the reality is that we need to find ways of improving generation and the transmission of power from solar, wind, and hydrogen outlets. I do believe that in the near future, we will experience great strides in the overall technologies of solar, wind, hydrogen and clean gas, as well as anything we use now for our energy sources. And for what it’s worth, we must stay focused on the legacy we are leaving for the next generation, both here and abroad. We must constantly ask what we want our legacy to be. We must invest in the future — in a world where our innovations and discoveries will create a more sustainable world for our children and future generations.
ICOSA: What do you think we need to do here in the U.S. to improve our ranking in science and math education, while inspiring additional innovation?
Shadi: We definitely have a great challenge before us. U.S. students rank low internationally when it comes to math and science education, but we must put a major emphasis on all areas of education in order to succeed in the long term. We cannot remain competitive globally if we don’t. If we don’t make this a priority, the U.S will no longer be competitive in terms of having enough engineers or scientists, or just simply people who understand science, technology and innovations. There are many ways of improving our educational system, and the time is now and not later. I became a scientist because I love science. Science has always been so intriguing to me. But many times when I talk to kids in high schools, I am asked, “If I study science, what can I do with it?” When I hear that question, I realize that we have failed to teach children the importance of science from a young age, so they become disinterested very early. And by the time they are in high school and college, it is too late to get them engaged again. For us to have students who are interested in sciences, mathematics, technology, and engineering, we must ensure that they remain interested. If we do, I believe, we will have more students who will have the training to work in innovative companies in various capacities. There isn’t a lack of ideas — in fact we remain one of the most innovative nations on the planet — look at all the great innovative companies and ideas that have emerged recently. However, what we are doing is not enough. Many groups seem to focus on starting companies. But I believe that our greatest challenge is not how to start companies, but how to help businesses that start, ultimately survive the challenges and obstacles facing entrepreneurs today.
ICOSA: You seem to be a very extroverted, social person and not like a stereotypical scientist – what are your thoughts on that?
Shadi: Many people I meet tell me that, which I find very interesting. I guess I wonder what a scientist is supposed to act like. A big part of what we do is demystifying the traditional definition of scientists and science. After giving regular public talks, I realized that the public does not understand enough about science and scientific process, but we also do a really poor job of translating science for/to the public. Unfortunately, most scientists and technologists are trained to talk only to their peer groups. And those PR people who try to convey the science stories to the public have little or no science training. Therefore, the science and its implications often get lost in the public translation. A few years ago, at the Society for Neuroscience conference, a colleague from Harvard and I ran public education symposia for the neuroscientist members. We talked about why it was so important for scientists to talk to the public directly about its implications. At www.biotrends.org, our online magazine, we have partnered with other organizations and experts to continue to share conversations and education among scientists, technologists, innovators, and the public. And just a few months ago, we started the Biotrends Foundation, a nonprofit foundation to promote the public sharing of science, education of the public, and the promotion of science and math education. Through the initiation of the foundation came the Innovate America project. At the foundation, we believe additional partnerships can give real growth to innovative ideas focused on creating more companies and ultimately jobs.
ICOSA: How important are collaborations and partnerships in innovation?
Shadi: When I teach about innovative companies and how to manage them, we talk a lot about bringing the right team together — internally and externally. Innovative companies must look at the world as a global market — they can no longer just focus on a local strategy. As the world continues to get smaller because of innovative technologies, partnerships will be paramount in strategic global expansion. I like to think that my colleagues and I serve as a bridge — a conduit, if you will — where we find partners and strategic relationships anywhere in the world.
COSA: What do people say about you and how do you want to be remembered?
Shadi: In an interview I did last year, I was asked how I was inspired every day. This question reminds me of that. It’s more than, “What legacy do you want to leave?” I think all of us who are out there in the world of technology, science and innovation see glimpses of the future. Sometimes, I see technology and science years before other people do, yet I know what kind of impact those innovations could have on improving our lives — from making us healthier, to improving the way we live, to the way we communicate. When people ask me what I do, I say, “I think-up the future.” My work is beyond imagining — it’s thinking it, visualizing it, and going to work every day and making it happen. That really inspires me. Entrepreneurs also inspire me, because being one is not easy.
My global work benefitting women and children also inspires me. I want to leave the world better than I found it. I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference — not as someone who just thought about the future, but worked hard to create the future.
Dr. Shadi continues to teach about innovation and talk nationally and internationally on innovation and entrepreneurship and how to create more jobs. To learn more visit www.biotrends.org or www.biotrendsinternational.com. To follow her on Twitter go to @Dr_Shadi.