Olivier Noel: The Union of Medicine, Science and Entrepreneurship

Olivier Noel is a scientist, entrepreneur and healthcare professional in training. As someone who is interested in creating things that make systems more efficiently, while…

Olivier Noel is a scientist, entrepreneur and healthcare professional in training. As someone who is interested in creating things that make systems more efficiently, while connecting people; it is no surprise that at the age of 28 years old he is the current CEO and co-founder of DNAsimple. “I have always loved science. I loved the idea that you can create new things to cure people and come up with alternatives and directly impact lives in ways you can see in your lifetime. The marriage of medicine and science, the ability to see a patient and then go to the lab and help the patient is amazing. Then entrepreneurship can be merged. You can see a patient, go to the lab, and then create a product that can help other patients. This trifecta [medicine, science and entrepreneurship] is something I’m so passionate about, there’s nothing I’d rather do.”

Noel’s journey to this point has been a combination of unrelated paths. Whether it was his upbringing, his parents or random experiences- they all played a part in shaping him. He credits his high school education, which he received in Haiti, as being extremely formative. “Haitians are tough and resilient people, and have certainly played a role in making me who I am. The education I received was terrific. The science background and discipline was super helpful in the later years in order to perform well and be successful. The environment that I grew up in and the values my parents instilled in me early on made a big difference. I always loved math and chemistry so continuing on that path was a natural progression for me. My own experiences have played a big part, the people I met, my mentors; overall it’s been a combination in molding me into who I am now.

Like many other startups, DNAsimple was started because Noel was trying to solve a problem. “When I started my PhD, we started a critical project and one of the issues was patient access based on the city where we were. The population was not large to begin with, and the population with that specific genetic variants was also not large. I went to a genetic conference and there were other researchers there talking about it and I realized other folks were having the same problem [not having access to particular patient samples]. We started a small pilot and officially launched in 2016 and two years later it’s working well.” Many will recognize Noel or DNAsimple from his appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank, which helped to increase the company’s exposure. However, the moment that provided true validation for Noel and his team, and resulted in the securing of large investors, was Noel making it on Forbes 30 Under 30 List.

While Noel is certainly passionate about his work and admits, there is nothing else he’d rather be doing, he is willing to admit that he has encountered his fair share of challenges along the way. In addition to common obstacles such as securing investors and optimizing the capital the organization had, Noel was in the midst of his MD/PhD studies when the company was founded. “On a personal level it was organized chaos, no sleeping, it was tough. The company challenges and personal challenges were substantial. You have bad months and good days. The challenge at the beginning was obviously to establish trust with our donors signing up and also making them comfortable that their information is safe with us and that their contribution is purely for advancing scientific research. We actually had to reaffirm to some folks that we were not the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency)! At the time there was nothing like us. Therefore, we had to establish ourselves and show that this could be helpful and a key tool if people buy into it.”

As Noel reflects on his journey he is confident that there isn’t too much he would change or anything he’d do differently. “You know if I remove a struggle I wouldn’t have known how to overcome the next struggle. Every struggle that I have overcome has given me confidence to move forward I was able to learn valuable lessons from each experience. Whether it’s failure or success, it’s a lesson for the future. And even the things I’ve failed at I expect to face again in the future, and they [failures] will prepare me to face them again.”

Anyone who speaks with Noel for a moment will quickly notice how dynamic and passionate he is. At every point in his educational career he has applied himself, worked hard and achieved exactly what he set out to accomplish. He is quick to recognize that his success is not merely a coincidence, but rather the result of individuals and institutions who encouraged him and supported him along the way. “There are people who I always shout-out. Obviously, my parents for the way they raised me. Even my high school in Haiti, an institution that shaped me as well.  I’m grateful for my college experience at Queens College (NY). I tell folks there must be an environment for you to do the things that you do, it’s never really just you. There’s a bit of luck involved- if I was at a different institution I may not have had this opportunity. At Queens there was my research mentor, Dr. Nathalia Holtzman, was really instrumental and someone still talk to; and Ms. Maureen Pierce-Anyan, who has been my all around all-purpose mentor. Penn State ultimately being the institution I selected the place to get my graduate degrees… and for providing the opportunity and environment for me to do the things that I have done.

For other young people interested in science, medicine, or entrepreneurship Noel has some advice. “There are a number of opportunities to enter this arena and to be entrepreneurs. If you look at other areas that traditionally have entrepreneurs like fintech, software and entertainment, medicine and science have not been explored in the same way. And if you look at a lot of the things that we do [in medicine], we’ve been doing it that way for a number of years. So, if you are interested in science and medicine now is a great time to do so [get involved], there are so many resources and opportunities. You shouldn’t start a company for the sake of starting a company, but find a niche and identify real problems. There’s never been a better time to find resources and investors and ways to start a company. There’s a ton of money for smart, young and energetic people. Particularly for groups you don’t see very much like women and minorities- there are opportunities.”

One might assume that being a full-time MD/PhD student, while running a thriving business, would leave Noel with very little time to pursue other projects. However, this is not the case. Noel continues to mentor students, those in high school all the way to graduate school. He’s worked with students for many years and is genuinely excited about helping them accomplish their goals. Recently, Noel was invited to join a subcommittee at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) to help increase the number of minorities getting masters and PhDs in biomedical sciences. Additionally, Noel intends to start a leadership academy where individuals who have the drive and passion to pursue their goals, but are limited in terms of funds and mentorship, can receive the assistance they need at an early age in order to fully maximize their potential.

The future looks bright for Noel and DNAsimple. Having recently completed his PhD and having only 2 years of medical school remaining, Noel intends to continue to focus on growing DNAsimple. They intend scale up and pursue another round of investing. When asked what else the future might have in store, Noel remains optimistic, “There may be other opportunities, and I never want to limit myself on what can be done, you don’t know what you don’t know so I’ll explore other opportunities and learn.” We are sure we will see more of Noel in the years to come!

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