Written by: Maryia Khomich
Venture capital (VC) is not an intuitive career choice for most life science professionals. It requires a solid knowledge base in science, finance, business essentials, long-term thinking, and careful career planning. The roles within a VC firm can vary, but they can be divided into:
- associates (performing analytical work, analyzing business models, exploring industry trends, and working with companies in a firm’s portfolio),
- principals (mid-level professionals; supporting the team, occasionally serving on the board of portfolio companies, and identifying investment opportunities), and
- partners (identifying areas of investment, approving deals, sitting on the board of portfolio companies, and representing the firm).
Jeroen Bakker shares his experience in the field of life science VC and gives a few tips on how to enter this fast-paced, exciting, and collaborative world.
Job title: Principal at Novo Holdings, Copenhagen, Denmark
Highest level of education and study field: PhD in immunology (University of Amsterdam), MSc in immunology (Leiden University), and BSc in biotechnology (TU Delft); science-based business track from Leiden University Medical Center.
What is your background?
Two BSc courses on immunology and entrepreneurship have defined my future career path. They led me to do two different research internships: one in translational research (La Jolla Institute for Immunology, USA) and one in business (biotech company Syntaxin, UK) during my MSc. I continued exploring entrepreneurship and innovation in biotech through an entrepreneurship course from the AMC Graduate School and the BioBusiness Summer School (Hyphen Projects) while pursuing a PhD in immunology at the Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam. Even though I knew I wanted to do science, I have always had an interest in drug discovery. I made a conscious decision to pursue investing when I was exploring opportunities around the drug discovery field because of the exposure to many different companies and technologies. To gain experience, I started as a consultant at a science and business company ttopstart B.V., where I helped companies to acquire non-dilutive funding for their R&D. One year after I joined M Ventures, the strategic, corporate VC arm of Merck, as an associate. After three years at M Ventures, I became a principal at Novo Seeds, an arm of Novo Holdings, which identifies, builds, and invests in innovative start-ups centered around patient treatment.
What does a life science venture capitalist do?
A venture capitalist should possess an innovative mindset that requires deep knowledge of industry trends, excellence in science, an understanding of how to balance risks and gains, and predict a long-term growth potential of a company.
VC is a people’s business. In a nutshell, we work with teams. We invest in start-ups and small businesses to supply them with the resources they need to expand or move their drug development program forward in exchange for a potential return on their investment in the long term. The resources we offer are not only funding but especially networks, or missing expertise, e.g., drug development, management, legal aspects. On the other hand, we also go out and talk to the researchers that have good ideas. And there are companies that come to us with ideas and ask for funding.
How did you make a career transition from research into life science VC?
Active learning and opportunities throughout my academic training have helped me to realize that there are careers beyond science. It is also important to think a little bit ahead and explore something new by taking courses or reaching out to people. Be aware of where you are in your career, be flexible and open-minded, and use the time to develop yourself towards your next career stage. And, in general, it is always smart to have a plan B.
What knowledge, skills, and experience are essential to succeed in life science VC?
Constant learning to be able to see innovation. There is no education or a university degree to become a life science venture capitalist. It is not essential to have a PhD, but it improves your chances of entering VC. Be creative and interested in research and establish relationships with people. Many professionals in life science VC are driven to make a difference in a patient’s life or, like myself, contribute to the drug approval process.
What are the challenges and benefits of pursuing a career in life science VC?
Flexibility, work-life balance, and work-related traveling. They can be both a benefit and a drawback, but it is always a personal choice. If you are working with a group of people, things need to get done. However, in an innovation ecosystem, you should be mindful of managing expectations. In other words, there is always a responsibility to patients to not give them false hope by saying something that you are not able to deliver.
What does your average day look like?
Calls, meetings, and emails (said with a big smile). Much of my time is spent in meetings, e.g., with my portfolio companies, management teams, or new companies asking for funding. I also read scientific articles and talk to experts in the field to get their advice.
How can you start a career in life science VC? Advice for life science graduates.
It is mostly about having the right personality and being an active learner. More likely you will need a few years of non-academic experience, such as consultancy or management. Demonstrate your interest and passion for the area and highlight useful skills you have developed throughout your career, e.g., by taking courses or organizing an extracurricular activity. If you learned about other elements of the job – intellectual property, law, finance – and networked, you might get a role in life science VC at the most junior level.