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Building CNS leadership teams with Dr Dean Carson

Carson shared insights on the Venari Podcast

Dr Dean Carson’s professional expertise in neuroscience spans preclinical research, clinical development, medical affairs, and business operations. A neuroscientist and psychopharmacologist by training, he earned his PhD at the University of Sydney and did postdoctoral work at Stanford before leaving academia for industry to work in small, early-stage biotechs. Dean has held multiple operational, clinical, and scientific leadership positions, resulting in successful exits, funding, and drug approvals.

He is currently at atai Life Sciences, where he leads two programmes developing innovative psychiatric therapeutics – and Paula Doust Alba, our CNS & Rare Disease Consultant, was delighted to hear his thoughts on building leadership teams in the CNS space in a recent episode of the Venari Podcast’s R&D Hiring series.



High risk, high reward

Dean has a broad background in areas like endocrinology, metabolism, rare disease, and neurology, all of which are lower risk than psychiatry. By his own admission, he avoided psychiatry in industry for a long time because of the numerous difficulties associated with the field. Developing drugs in this space is extremely complex and the failure rate is high. Raising money can be difficult, also, with ‘many large companies kind of deprioritising their development plans within the space.’

Things are different now, however. ‘As we progress as a society,’ Dean says, ‘we’re seeing more and more of an unmet need.’ Funding opportunities for research from both venture capital as well as at federal level – in addition to more resources from large pharma companies – mean that people like Dean, ‘who’ve had interest and a training background in that space’, can feel more comfortable entering the high-risk, high-reward sphere of psychiatry.

Changes in the hiring space

People are often drawn to this side of the industry ‘through their own personal experiences, or just their observations of living on this planet,’ Dean notes. ‘That certainly is a motivator for people to want to develop drugs’ that can alleviate mental health conditions. He doesn’t believe that there are soft skills which are specific to psychiatry, as opposed to other areas of drug development. Still, Dean does point out that the way the industry approaches hiring into CNS, neurology, and psychiatry has changed in the past few years now that there is much more investor interest. When it comes to the knowledge base expected of senior hires, ‘the bar is much higher’ than it was even ten years ago. There is far more information available about the brain now; increasingly, leaders in these spaces need to have experience not only of developing drugs, but also an understanding of ‘the complexities and the nuances of any area within neuroscience that’s going to support bringing drugs to market.’

Dean notes that several companies in the neuroscience space have developed their talent’s skillsets internally, as experts in their fields rub shoulders with newer candidates coming to industry from academia. A diverse range of experience and specialisations is important to avoid ‘seeing people stagnate and just going over the same approach to drug development for an area that has been unsuccessful for a long time’, he says.

Larger vs smaller organisations – what are the hiring implications?

Hiring practices, in larger and smaller organisations alike, will often largely depend on what candidates are looking for at given points in their careers. Dean cites the movement of people looking to escape the downturn in biotech for something more stable, while candidates from Big Pharma, by contrast, may want a fresh challenge. The two-way flow can help both sides – many small biotechs would benefit from more structured setups and experienced candidates who ‘have the longer view of things’, while Big Pharma firms look to drive innovation with help from more agile talent.

What is the most important quality for hiring into CNS – and what does the future hold?

Whether you’re an employee, employer, or investor in the CNS space, one word is key: resilience. For Dean, it’s the number one quality for anyone working in this field given the frequently challenging nature of the work. ‘This is an incredibly high failure rate portion of the industry. And it’s a high failure rate because it’s the single most complicated aspect of medicine,’ he notes – which in turn explains why it has the ‘highest unmet need’. As long as those in the field stay resilient, ‘there will be breakthroughs and it will become more stable.’ Nonetheless, Dean says that for now, CNS and psychiatric drug development remain uncertain – ‘and people have to have tolerance for that.’

Indeed, in such a rapidly changing area, what the future holds for hiring patterns remains to be seen. Dean notes that AI will likely reduce staffing needs in areas of the industry that are easier to automate, whereas strategy decisions will require focus on allowing trailblazers to forge new paths in areas ‘where there haven’t been a large number of approvals, or at least not with anything that’s super novel.’ Strategic-level guidance may be helpful, but it won’t change the fact that ‘drug development is inherently risky,’ as Dean puts it. ‘People need to have an appetite for that risk, and they’re rewarded by a potential financial return’ – not to mention ‘the fascinating things that we do in this space.’

Do you need help with your CNS talent solutions? Don’t hesitate to get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.


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