MF 133 : Moving Forward as a Social Entrepreneur, with Robert Selliah
Updated: Jun 17, 2022
Robert Selliah, Ph.D. is the CEO and Founder of American MedChem, a Non-Profit organization dedicated to discovery and development of drug candidates created for children. Today, Robert will share how AMC has become a disruptive force to change a market failure.
Successes at a glance:
A pharmaceutical scientist turned social entrepreneur.
Founder, American MedChem, a 503c non-profit dedicated to the eradication of rare childhood diseases thru the creation of specialized drugs.
The focus is on those population of children afflicted by rare diseases that are not widespread and thus ignored by larger pharma companies and biotechs.
Setback failure or time when things fell apart:
Unlike most of the guests on Moving Forward, Robert wasn’t affected by a personal setback or failure in his career. On the contrary, Robert had a very successful and satisfying career as a pharmaceutical scientist. Rather, Robert experienced and discovered a market failure that adversely affected the lives of children all over the world. After 18 years in the industry, Robert faced a glaring discrepancy that caused him to ask himself a big why question. Why didn’t he ever see or work on any projects for pediatric medicine? This question led Robert to ask more questions and investigate further. What he discovered was that for common diseases such as asthma, allergies, the practice was to take adult medicines and reformulate them for children. However, and shockingly, Robert reveals that when it comes to more serious diseases such as cancer, there’s little research and drug development that’s being done specifically for children. Moreover, the practice of applying adult remedies such as chemotherapy to children afflicted with these diseases often had damaging effects. Robert’s question ultimately led to a revelation: the drug discovery industry has largely failed the child population. The reason for this? As Robert shares, it’s the lack of market drivers and incentives to focus efforts on children. To illustrate, since the costs are significant to develop treatments for adult diseases, pharma companies focus their efforts on diseases that are widespread. When it comes to childhood diseases, the afflicted population is much smaller. Thus those same companies don’t have the incentive to research and develop specialized treatments. What makes this situation all the more tragic is that the technology and the need are both there. What is missing are the market drivers and thus, the incentive for the private sector to develop treatments for childhood diseases.
The “aha” moment that sparked a pivot:
Robert is trained as a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry, which is impressive on its own and was the basis for a long 18-19 year career in the pharma industry. Robert reached the pinnacle of career success; having worked for 7 major pharma companies, researching and contributing to treatments for 6 diseases. Robert was the very definition of success, having started out in the trenches and rising to a management position where he was in charge of over 200 chemists. Unlike many of the guests we’ve profiled on this show, Robert wasn’t unhappy with his job. Rather, he had a different kind of “aha” moment that led him to leave his comfortable job behind and become a social entrepreneur.
As detailed above, Robert had a big why question which identified an entire market failure, resulting in the under-serving of children afflicted with diseases. To answer this need, Robert made it his mission to develop a solution; one that would not be market driven but philanthropy driven. This became the founding premise for American MedChem, the first non-profit biotech company.
Getting there wasn’t easy. Robert had a very comfortable career with a steady paycheck. Exchanging that for the unknown was a new experience for him. Many around Robert, questioned his decision, believing that he had a personal stake in this venture. As Robert reveals, he doesn’t have children! Yet, he was moved by the market problem to take action. At the heart of it, Robert found his big why: providing optimal and viable solutions for sick children. Robert knows that one of the greatest tragedies and hardest moments that any parent would ever have to face is to carry a sick child to a doctor only to be told that there are no medicines that can help. With this in mind, Robert started in 2010, working hard to stitch together and create a new organization: the non-profit biotech. Today, in 2017, American MedChem has launched out of the gate and is making waves in social enterprise; based on a wholly collaborative model that is sustainable. Robert is a great example of how a question can lead to a calling. He is moving forward to ensure that everyone has a chance to do the same.
Resource or cultural experience that inspired Robert to move forward:
Infinite Vision by Pavithra K. Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy: tells the story of how Dr. Venkataswamy (“Dr. V”) bucked the traditional model of eye care to create Aravind, a self-sustaining, social enterprise, service model which is now the largest eye-care provider on the planet.
Gabriella Miller: a brave young girl whose message was that others should continue the fight to find a cure for cancer. Robert was inspired by this video and dedicates his work to Gabriella and those like her.
Favorite app / website / resource or productivity hack:
Robert’s best practice: use lists and categorize connections based on topic or interest. For Robert, this is useful in organizing groups of scientists, helpers, etc. so the messages can be targeted and specific. An old fashioned approach within a modern communication medium.
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Advice to past self while going thru a difficult time:
“Be fearless! That’s it.” It will force you to become more resourceful.
Parting wisdom (in a few words):
“Cultivate a sense of inclusivity.”