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
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up?
Sean Adler: I lived like a pinball from 2018-2021 and was forced to pivot numerous times. Each pivot has shaped GZI in various ways. Tensions between the US and China were starting to rise when I was studying in 2018 at the WHO collaborative center in Nanjing and I ended up spending a lot of time with the expat entrepreneurs because they knew how to navigate the nuances of Communism. Since my experience in China was less than stellar, I decided to chase a career that felt right, thus GZI was born.
It was the street smarts learned from the expat entrepreneurs in China that helped me navigate during COVID while I was developing GZI as a biotechnology graduate student at Hopkins. The world doesn’t operate in a rational manner during a global pandemic so the combination of book smarts from my time in graduate school and the street smarts learned in China were both imperative to GZI’s survival during that time. There definitely were times when I considered giving up, but the encouragement of the people at Founder Institute helped motivate me because I felt like it showed confidence in the company despite the circumstances in Washington, DC.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. What’s the worst advice you received?
Sean Adler: The worst advice I ever received was to continue bootstrapping the company after becoming a C-Corp with shareholders. Most everyone bootstraps at the early stages until they have enough traction to expand with confidence but shouldering the liabilities that come with leading a multimillion-dollar company with numerous corporate entities and individuals who are shareholders can become daunting quickly when much of the liability falls on a solo founder. This wasn’t an issue when GZI was an LLC but providing salaries for employees and partners often means cutting your own for the sake of the company. This becomes less feasible as the size of the company begins to grow, which is a necessity since the needs of a company are dynamic.
Is there a particular podcast you listened to, or business thought leader that you find helpful while maneuvering this pandemic?
Sean Adler: There are two podcasts that really speak to me. The first is Fireside with a VC by Andrew Romans and the second is Aries Today. One of our advisors is a partner at 7VC, which is the VC firm hosting the podcast, so I enjoy the perspectives on international fintech startups that frequent the podcast. Romans has published numerous books on venture capital and blockchain since he was an early pioneer in tech entrepreneurship back in the late 1990s before the dot com boom. The similarities are clear when you look at how the rise and fall of tech companies like Apple and Microsoft spiked and then plummeted before leveling off during that period and then comparing that to the rise of Moderna and BioNTech. The advisor I mentioned is probably the only person I’ve met who can discuss the intricacies of venture capital, algorithmic trading, and biotechnology so it’s always enjoyed when aspects of our discussions end up being heard in podcasts because the perspective is worth its weight in gold.
As for Aries today, I’m afraid my zodiac sign periodically reflects my temperament, and the daily podcast helps me reflect on whatever is happening in my life and at the company. The scientist in me wants to reject any superstition, but businesses are a human phenomenon so the sections on reflecting on your relationships and careers put the spotlight on a person’s life, irrespective of whether astrology has anything to do with it.
What is most important to your organization—mission, vision, or values?
Sean Adler: Vision, by far. I used to joke about GZI having 2020 vision when it was first getting started during the beginning of COVID since the concept was such a coincidence, but the logic was already very sound when it was conceived in January of 2019. GZI was initially a twist on AIG since my parents gave me a newspaper article about AIG being started during the early 20th century in Shanghai by someone who left UC Berkeley to start a company. The initial focus on biotech companies was because the economic trends that foster entrepreneurial ventures changes every 20 years. People flocked to Wall St. in the 1980s to strike it rich in finance, the 2000s marked the beginning of the tech revolution in Silicon Valley, and 2020 forced biotechnology to become the next entrepreneurial sector. All of the big names in tech entrepreneurship mentioned by people are those of the ones who were involved with tech entrepreneurship in the 1990s who grew to prominence in the 21st century as it became mainstream.
While I had faith in a biotechnological revolution due to advances in genetic engineering and biologic data science, it’s hard to say anyone could’ve predicted the impact of COVID. The interesting thing is that the importance of our company’s vision was partially developed when I was blinded by everything going on in Washington, DC at the height of COVID and it was relevant because most of the world was blinded as well.
Delegating is part of being a great leader, but what have you found helpful to get your managers to become valiant leaders as well?
Sean Adler: The few people we have onboarded were carefully selected. GZI believes in giving its management free agency over the way in which they operate so our people can be their truest selves. This is important because it allows our management the ability to work in the way that is best for them, and we simply tailor their work to the tasks that need to be done if the way they naturally operate fits what the company needs.
Executives commonly speak of people being a corporation’s most important asset and they are right because companies are people too. The people you onboard will create a chain reaction that influences the company whether it is intended or not, so providing key employees the ability to develop themselves the way they like is our perception of how to train managers to become valiant leaders.
What have you learned about personal branding that you wish you had known earlier in your career?
Sean Adler: A personal brand is only as important as the degree to which other people find it relevant, but you will lose the followers who are crucial to your company if your personality is fake. To be honest, I am lucky that my personal brand was specialized and outlandish enough to suit a black swan like COVID.
Remaining humble throughout the process of going from nothing to something special and maintaining that humility is also crucial to a personal brand since karma is very real and business politics are equally vicious. The story of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ring true to the entrepreneurial journey. The play was based on a biblical story that describes the process of someone going from being favored over others, to becoming a slave, then a prisoner, and finally a prophet again. In the end, the brothers who sold Joseph into slavery reap the benefits of what he had sown but this was only after Joseph had suffered immense hardship and the brothers had been impoverished by their own hand. This is what people mean when they speak of golden handcuffs in venture capital.
How would you define “leadership”?
Sean Adler: I find this humorous because the success of GZI is the result of throwing my entire professional life into a blender, so here it goes. Leadership is paving the unpaved path, showing others the way during the journey, and keeping everyone both happy and intact during the process. The trajectory of life is far from linear so I prefer an obtuse definition of leadership because it happens when an individual’s authenticity and the perspective of society are combined under a context suitable for both. Honestly, so much has changed so rapidly that I’m still coming to grips with the idea of people considering me a leader. Everyone’s support really does mean the world to me so thank you for asking.
What would you say is the main difference between starting a business at the time you started yours and starting the business in today’s age?
Sean Adler: GZI was started at a WeWork in Washington, DC’s Chinatown months prior to COVID so another black swan of this severity is unlikely to repeat itself. Both biotechnology and fintech underwent immense transformations in the two years COVID has been plaguing the world. Everyone watched as the world rapidly changed over the course of the year and people couldn’t stop discussing how the future of remote work, fintech, and biotech underwent a decade of change in one year.
I remember talking to a news anchor at CNBC while I was starting to beat the stock market during a virtual tech accelerator because of social distancing protocols. In the meantime, people in Viking helmets stormed congress while the national guard patrolled DC with automatic rifles and surgical masks on. Keep in mind that this was right before vaccines were released in early 2021 so meme stocks were popping up on Reddit and cryptocurrency prices were skyrocketing. This combination of events literally almost killed me because I would stay in my WeWork space until the early morning working since the apartment, I lived in was so cramped that I couldn’t bear living in it, so a replay of this kind of chaos is unlikely to ever occur again.
My jaw practically dropped to the ground because the state of biotechnology and fintech are a direct result of everything that happened, so the ideas behind GZI would be less revolutionary since the company would’ve been launched after the changes instead of prior to and during them. Simply put, there wasn’t much of a market for what GZI did until the entire world became the market overnight. If anyone asks, this is precisely why we chose a flaming swan as a logo.
What’s your favorite “business” quote and how has it affected your business decisions?
Sean Adler: “If you want to learn to swim jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.” – Bruce Lee
Entrepreneurs will often explain to people that the way to learn about starting a company is to start a company. There really is no other way except to experience the process of a trial by fire while learning to dodge bullets. Cultivating the right frame of mind is developed in the process of learning to swim with the current. This has influenced everything from our development goals to our hiring practices because things change rapidly in startups so learning on the fly becomes an asset if it is balanced against the overall direction of the company.
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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