These biotech and life sciences CEOs made the leap from software startups — here’s how they did it
In the past several years the barriers between tech and the life sciences have begun to dissolve.
AI and machine learning have gone from buzzwords to bedrock technologies for a growing number of biotech and healthtech companies.
These companies are wielding the tools of tech to uncover new treatments, invent new ways to analyze molecules and microbes, and to mine the reams of healthcare data generated by visits to doctors’ offices and hospitals.
And as more companies at this intersection emerge, more executives are crossing from tech into the new frontier of life sciences and biotech. The learning curve is steep. But these individuals also bring different ways of thinking and ideas about what it takes for a company to succeed.
They include folks such as Sujal Patel, who sold his software startup Isilon Systems for $2.25 billion in 2010. Now he’s CEO of Nautilus Biotechnology, a Seattle startup using software to analyze proteins.
Or there’s Terry Myerson, the former top Microsoft exec who is now leading Truveta, another Seattle startup that aims to aggregate medical records data.
Funding and business models for biotech are taking on some of the streamlined aspects of tech, and people who know both realms bring a unique perspective, said Matt McIlwain, managing director at Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group.
“Part of that allows you to think about the science and the product differently,” he said. “But we’re also finding that it changes the way you can think about the business models. And I think that’s going to be as equally disruptive as the scientific transformation.”
Madrona is traditionally known for backing tech startups but now also invests in companies at the “intersection of innovation,” said McIlwain. These companies at the interface between biology, health and computer and data science include Nautilus, TwinStrand Biosciences, Ozette, and A-Alpha Bio and Terray Therapeutics.
Investors are paying close attention to life sciences and biotech. Total funding to U.S. biotech and pharma companies surpassed $20 billion across 596 deals in the first half of 2021, likely passing last year’s record of $27.2 billion raised across 1,043 deals, according to PitchBook. There are also a record high number of biotech companies joining the public markets this year.
Life sciences companies in tech hubs such as Silicon Valley and Seattle have the advantage of a large regional tech talent pool. In Washington state, “you have the titans of tech meeting the titans of biotech. And I think it’s all good,” said Leslie Alexandre, CEO of the industry group Life Science Washington.
We spoke with four CEOs who made the leap from tech to the life sciences and asked them how they made the transition and what they learned. The answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Sujal Patel, CEO of Nautilus Biotechnology
Patel previously helped launch and lead Isilon Systems, which sold to EMC for $2.25 billion in 2010. In 2016 he co-founded Nautilus Biotechnology with Parag Mallick, an associate professor at Stanford University. Nautilus brings computer science, biochemistry and nanotech to bear on its technology to analyze proteins and went public in a $345 million SPAC deal this June.
“After I left Isilon, I spent the next four years making investments. I spent a lot of time downtown with the folks at Madrona Venture Group looking at deals and trying my hand in the investing world. I took a bunch of board seats. But I knew I wanted to get back into an operational role and dive back into the beginning. In 2016, Parag called me up and that call led to the creation of this company.
My first year was like 60-to-75% coding and writing the second generation of the algorithm building off of Parag’s work. And the other thing I was doing was I had to basically catch up and figure out how to be a CEO of biotech.
So first, I had to go figure out my basic biology and chemistry. I went on YouTube, and I found college level classes. And I just caught up on all of that at like 2X speed.
Every day, I would call Parag up. He’s a very patient man, he’s a professor. I would have a list of 50 dumb questions of the day. I would just start going through: here’s what I learned and I have a question about this, and this and this. And he patiently answered my questions for like a year.
That got me to the point where I could start understanding and reading research papers, and I quickly read somewhere around 500 of them in the core areas. Then we started building a lab in the Bay Area.
It’s just been an incredibly fun journey to learn a completely different field.”
Daphne Koller, CEO of inistro
Koller has worked on problems in machine learning for most of her career. For 18 years she was a computer science professor at Stanford; she is a fellow of the National Academy of Engineering and a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellow. She is a co-founder of education giant Coursera and also recently co-founded another tech-enabled education venture, engagli. In 2018 Koller founded insitro, a drug discovery company at the convergence of machine learning and biology. The startup has several pharma partnerships and raised $400 million in March. She works to establish a culture where biologists and tech experts collaborate productively.
“I got into biology initially at Stanford. I thought, let’s go do something that has a little bit more technical interest and also a bit more aspirational impact. The last formal class I’ve taken in biology was in middle school.
It was a rough ride at the start. I used to tell people that I’m reading a biology paper and I’m understanding every third word and most of those are prepositions. If I had to give advice to people, if you can try and learn something about the space as part of your formal education, take some biology classes.
But regardless, biology is so vast and so complex that there will always be huge swaths of the field that you just don’t understand. And the most important thing is to be courageous and humble at the same time. Courageous in that, be willing to pick up a paper, be willing to read it. Recognize that you will not understand most of what’s in there, look things up and with humility ask your biology colleagues questions.
I’ve seen failures on both sides. There’s tech people who come in with this incredible amount of hubris: ‘I don’t need to learn biology because my machine learning or my software will conquer all.’ That is not true — biology is hard, you need to learn it. I’ve seen an equal amounts of hubris on the life science side where you have biologists who say, ‘Oh, these tech people, they can get our laptops working but they’ll never be able to provide any value. They’re not scientists.’ That hubris exists on both sides and one of the fundamental tenets that we have at insitro is that we engage with each other openly, constructively, and with respect.
The goal is to make the outcome better rather than to look like the smartest person in the room, and have deep respect for what the other person brings to the conversation. The thing that I think we have done really well at insitro was creating that culture. That is my critical role.”
Naveen Jain, CEO of Viome Life Sciences
Best known as the founder and former CEO of InfoSpace, Jain also co-founded public records firm Intelius as well as Moon Express, which aims to take paying customers to the moon. Viome, founded in 2016, is his seventh venture. Viome provides services to analyze the microbiome, the collection of microbes in the gut and other body regions, paired with probiotics and supplements tailored to each customer. Viome also has a medical diagnostics division and expects to hit revenue of $100 million next year. Jain advises others making the transition to the life sciences to have a consumer mindset.
“First of all, number, one, know that healthcare is actually a big data problem. Healthcare is no longer about trial and error. Once you start to believe that human body is basically a bunch of biochemical activity, it becomes a math and chemistry problem. Math is all AI and chemistry is all the biochemical activities.
I can tell you that what I do: I spend the first three hours of every day reading all the science papers – every Nature paper, every Cell paper. I don’t care what industry it is in, I read. And the reason is that allows me to understand the basic vocabulary of what is going on.
From a business standpoint, collecting this massive amount of data, you have to think about it very differently, you have to think like a consumer. What services can you provide to them?
Most medical guys make a cardboard kit. We did not make a cardboard kit. Look at our supplement box. This is our supplement box, magnetic lock, every single ingredient listed and designed for you. Every pack is just what you need, nothing that you don’t. This is a consumer mindset coming in — this is not a medical product, this is a consumer product. You have got to make them feel that they are buying something that they want.”
Terry Myerson, CEO of Truveta
Myerson is a former Microsoft executive who led the company’s Windows and Devices group. In 2020 he was tapped to lead Truveta, which aggregates medical records data to link treatments with outcomes and underlying health. Myerson describes Truveta, which recently raised $95 million, as both a tech and a life sciences company. When asked for advice about making the transition to the life sciences he noted the high ethical bar in his new field.
“I’ve spent my whole career in tech, but if you were to go on LinkedIn and look at the profiles of the people we’re hiring, we’re probably two thirds deep technical depth and one third physician scientists, clinical informaticists, epidemiologists. The last interview I did was for an epidemiologist. I’m excited. I’m also on the steepest learning curve ever, and I’ve been on some very steep learning curves in my career. This is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever worked on.
Leading Windows, security and privacy were very top of mind. But there’s something very special about patient data that takes ethics, privacy and security, and data quality to a whole new level. There’s nothing more personal than health data. Windows was a good training ground I think for me to really understand how to do this at a whole new level. You’ve got to have deep respect for ethics, privacy and security.”