Meet Sean Adler, a scholar turned entrepreneur. While pursuing a clinical program in China during 2018, he began to sense a significant divide between academic and functional knowledge. This influenced the decision to give up his scholarship from the Chinese government in spite of their generosity, so he could pursue an entrepreneurial career. Sean started GZI during his time as a graduate student in biotechnology at Johns Hopkins while he gained experience with the investing side of entrepreneurship by screening ventures for a number of groups across the United States.
Sean outperformed some of the largest hedge funds in the world during the coronavirus crash of 2020 after the initial development of quantitative trading strategies for international biotechnology companies during the coronavirus crash of 2020, which led to GZI becoming a top-ranked Founder Institute portfolio company with a multimillion-dollar valuation. In addition to his tenure as CEO of GZI, he sporadically participates in startup mentorship programs with the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center and Founder Institute.
Sean’s professional background is versatile across domains in startups and investments but is most concentrated in international tech startups, biotech, and fintech. This includes skills like data science, statistical programming, managerial business, genomic data science, and Mandarin Chinese. He is generally very busy, though, nevertheless, feel free to hit him up if you think you’d get along or if something about his profile speaks to you.
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Table of Contents
Before we begin, our readers are interested to know about how you got started in the first place. Did you always want to be where you are today or was it something you were led to? Share with us your journey.
Sean Adler: My goal was to study integrated medicine at a WHO collaborative center in China so I could study medical Chinese and become a scholar. There were some miscommunications between China and the USA that I didn’t find out about until I landed in Nanjing, but I applied to a biotechnology program through Johns Hopkins since they were in Nanjing as well. Hopkins gave me a backup plan in the same area because I knew doing a 4-year clinical degree in Mandarin Chinese was a long shot for an American.
Miscommunications between the US and China led me to seek help from the ex-pat entrepreneurs in China. This led to the life science venture capital events in Nanjing during 2018 that started everything. The stock market also underwent an initial correction the month I returned to the USA, and someone referred me to a Techstars hackathon where I took math classes as an undergrad at CU Boulder shortly after. This influenced GZI’s initial focus on international biotechnology and our trajectory as a tech startup.
Those events resulted in my first mentor at the start of 2019 when I began graduate school at Johns Hopkins. I helped with sales and fundraising at investor events, which is how I learned to navigate social politics in entrepreneurial circles. In retrospect, these were exercises for being an entrepreneur, but I was too naïve to understand at the time. Nonetheless, I ended up at an angel investing group he started in the DC area as a result of the social navigation exercises. This is where I screened biotech ventures between 2019-2020.
Tell us a bit about your current focus. What is the most important thing that you’re working on and how do you plan on doing it?
Sean Adler: We’re doing a lot of surveys and prototyping at the moment with the intent of factoring in everyone’s feedback in the next build. This makes customer satisfaction our current focus. Our market research pertained to selling alternative data as a product since the initial focus was on data engineering. Data engineering is server-side whereas the customer-oriented side has to do with the display.
Some argue that punctuality is a strength. Others say punctuality is a weakness. How do you feel about it, please explain.
Sean Adler: Punctuality’s a strength if everyone’s timelines align, but a weakness if you depend on that without exception. Expecting everyone to operate with precision is actually a mistake since life happens. Shifting timelines is actually a common negotiation tactic, so punctuality is very much a relational skill from my point of view.
How important is having good timing in your line of work and in the industry that your organization operates in?
Sean Adler: Timing is a make-or-break skill in both trading and entrepreneurship. Structuring proper timing around events outside your control is something learned from experience. Entrepreneurs call these “pivots”. In reality, they are a mix of improv and timing.
Founder of Virgin Group, Richard Branson, states “Timing is everything in life, and it’s particularly crucial in entrepreneurship. People often equate success with luck, but it usually comes down to impeccable (and carefully mapped out) timing”. Do you agree with this statement? Please answer in as much detail as necessary.
Sean Adler: Yes and no. Richard Branson was squatting in London during the late 1960s prior to founding Virgin Group in the early 1970s. Virgin is known for signing on punk rock bands like the Sex Pistols. This happened at the beginning of the punk scene and is potentially because of his own experience squatting since the Sex Pistols are known for it. This is why I feel it’s a little more complex than timing and that knowing how to make your own luck is part of it.
There was a quote in the New York Times about entrepreneurs making their own luck by knowing when to wait for the elevator when it’s on its way up. Timing your luck is where it comes from but disregarding the impact of luck itself is unrealistic since proper timing can turn luck into fate.
As a leader/entrepreneur/CEO, how do you decide when to put the pedal to the metal and when to take a break? How do you time the key moments in your career?
Sean Adler: I’m generally the type that is comfortable with one foot on the gas and another in the grave since that is the balance needed for rapid growth. Hypergrowth is affectionately referred to as a rate that’s somewhere between venture projections and death, so I try to keep the pedal to the metal. Letting key career moments happen and trying to structure them around momentum is equally important. My overall goal is to strike a consistent balance between the two.
The “feel” of entrepreneurship at the early stages is difficult to quantify but is understood by salty dogs who’ve been there. I mention the word “feel” since everyone has their own timelines but leaving enough flexibility to bend them in accordance with external events that can play to your favor will often leave you with a superior outcome. Compromising timelines on the regular may spell the destruction of your company, but so does rigidity.
Branson also states “If you’re starting to feel like you’re just going through the motions and losing sight of why you started, it might be time to take a break”. But how do you decide when to take a break?
Sean Adler: Generally, less than 60 hours a week is too little for a startup. The initial feeling prior to my girlfriend was that if somebody wants a day off, they chose the wrong career. Taking a break feels like a mistake to me because life is short and one day, we all die. So why stop when things are beginning to take off? That being said, I recently cut down to a six-day week at her request. When she says my work-life balance is better, I take her word for it.
“Timing can be everything when starting up. It can be the difference between building a thriving business and not” How has good timing helped you achieve success in your career or business? Are there any particular examples from your career that you would like to share?
Sean Adler: The irony is that this works both ways for me since I fled China a year before COVID spread across the globe, then moved to DC two months before the global lockdown. So, my timing was good enough to have left China at the right time but left me stuck managing GZI throughout a yearlong state of emergency in Washington, DC. Doing live trades on international stock exchanges was blood-curdling at the time, but it made alternative data all the more relevant.
Conceptually, GZI was launched at the perfect time. Moderna and BioNTech were skyrocketing when the entire stock market crashed. Meme stocks on Wall St. bets began shooting up in early 2021 as we finished the Founder Institute cohort. There was one event they held where we couldn’t do more than look at each other because the whole thing was so unbelievable and there wasn’t anything people could say to adequately describe it.
“When you’re thinking of starting up, ask yourself: ‘Is the community I want to serve ready for this idea?’ It could make all the difference!” Would you like to add anything to this piece of advice for all the aspiring entrepreneurs?
Sean Adler: It really depends on what they are starting. This matters less for deep tech ventures in biotech, quantum computing, cleantech, space tech, and some fintech. Their value is governed by intrinsic systems and scientific laws that will hold true regardless of the customer. Community is crucial for companies that depend on sales revenue. My advice is actually to start a deep tech company instead of a tech startup because the quantum internet and inhabitable structures for life in space are under development. Tech startups may be yesterday’s news in 1-2 decades, but they scale flexibly.
If your company thrives on sales, you have to be passionate about the product you are developing and the community it pertains to. Conversely, the startups that defined entrepreneurship were generally moonshots that didn’t have a definitive product-market fit and defined a new category. They succeed because the ideation was malleable enough to be remolded into something relevant to a community.
COVID forced many businesses to adapt fast, some did so successfully, others failed, it was a lot due to good or poor timing. What are some of the big lessons you’ve learned during the pandemic?
Sean Adler: COVID is a sobering phenomenon because it emphasized life indiscriminately happens to everyone. Learning to stand your ground in the face of adversity is likely the most important thing I’ve learned. It’s tempting for me to throw around clichés like “expect the unexpected” but there’s no point telling the world what it already knows.
Fighting to grow GZI during the pandemic is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Effectively standing my ground was a result of learning when to do it tactfully. Standing your ground at the wrong time may result in being knocked flat on your face. It’s not exactly the most heartwarming thing to discuss, but true, nonetheless.
Business is all about overcoming obstacles and creating opportunities for growth. What do you see as the real challenge right now?
Sean Adler: This is subjective and really depends since there is always something. My personal feeling is that GZI’s biggest challenge is transitioning from a fund to a data product. Data is a flexible medium, leaving us a number of potential venues. This includes structuring asset-backed cryptocurrencies and importable datasets. Importable datasets were the initial focus of alternative data. The issue is valuable aspects of the data are being lost when it is repackaged as a dataset.
Advanced features pertaining to data efficacy can be factored into a cryptocurrency more easily, but that lengthens our build times.
This is because financial instruments such as equities are subject to more design limitations than cryptocurrencies. It’s definitely easier to maximize returns on cryptocurrency than it is equities—unless the focus is equity derivatives.
Your insight has been incredibly valuable and our readers thank you for your generosity. We do have a couple of other bold questions to ask. What fictional world would you want to start a business in and what would you sell?
Sean Adler: Concepts like targeted ads were published in 1950s sci-fi novels like The Space Merchants, so outer space would be my fictional choice. Netcapital also hosts a number of space tech companies in addition to GZI. Synthetic finance was based on synthetic biology—which is essentially organism engineering—so I’d have to go with selling transhuman human abilities for space travel.
The Moderna vaccine is popular gene therapy. Genetic engineering is relatively young in comparison to other sectors in pharmaceuticals. The neural networks utilized in AI are based on the human brain. Neuralink is already a pioneer in transhumanist features like brain-computer interactions. Genetically engineering those features would be an economically sound moonshot.
Before we finish things off, we would love to know, when you have some time away from business, what is one hobby that you wish you could spend more time on?
Sean Adler: Exercise, martial arts, and meditation. Intellectual capacity is closely tied to physical and psychological wellbeing. It is easy to lose sight of hobbies since I am very much about progressing to the next level and this is reflected in most other aspects of my life.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Sean Adler for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Sean Adler or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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