Venture capital companies employ life scientists to help them make investment decisions concerning life science start-ups. We recently spoke to EMBL Alumnus Jordi Xiol about how he moved from fundamental research to a venture capital role. He advises that – in addition to solid scientific knowledge, some knowledge of biotech / drug discovery, and ability to make quick decisions – interpersonal skills are really important for venture capital: your network will be very important to your work. Jordi developed his knowledge of biotech & drug discovery using Twitter and the stock market, and built his network by reaching out to people for a coffee.
Please find the full interview below.
You also can learn more about this career area in the following articles:
- Nature blogs: the career path to venture capital
- Nature Biotechnology: so you want to be a venture capitalist?
You were a predoc at EMBL Grenoble and are currently a Senior Associate at Ysios Capital, a Spanish Venture Capital firm working with healthcare and life science companies. Could you explain how your career developed?
After a very intense and productive PhD at EMBL, I went to Boston to do a postdoc at Harvard. In Boston, there is obviously a very good academic community. But something that was also really important at the time for me was the vibrant Biotech ecosystem. And I think for me, one of the learnings was that there is actually a lot of really good, really innovative science being done in the private sector as well. This is something I had not been exposed to during my PhD because I was working on a very fundamental topic of research.
I became interested in how you develop drugs, so how you make new drugs that will help patients. I also understood that – apart from the important part which is research – there is also the development part, which is also very important and equally challenging. I became interested in learning more about how research from the lab gets taken to the market and learning about the strategy and the kind of decisions you have to make during that process.
And that is how I got interested in VC (Venture Capital). I initially started working for a Venture Capital firm in Boston, Vida Ventures, for a few hours a week. I transitioned to a full-time position, and after a few months I moved back to Europe – in this case to Spain where I am coincidentally from – to continue my career.
What does your role as a venture capitalist entail?
At this point, I am in charge of looking for and evaluating investment opportunities, which means talking to entrepreneurs or academic scientists who are trying to turn their idea into a therapeutic. We receive somewhere between 5 – 10 opportunities per week, which we have to evaluate. From there we select a few and do a deep-dive: this is called diligence process. Basically, we do a lot of research on the topic, on the asset that the company is developing, on the clinical development path for getting that drug approved, on the team. This means reaching out to key opinion leaders, scientists, clinicians, experts in things like manufacturing, lawyers for intellectual property, bankers who can understand how the company will be able to fundraise in the future. Basically, if that research is convincing and positive, you try to build an investment case around that opportunity. Then I am involved in presenting that investment case to the partnership at Ysios. And if it is approved, for certain occasions, I will follow the company after that as an observer in the board of directors. So, you also get to manage that investment and see the company evolve over time.
In what ways is the work you are doing now similar to what you were doing in academia and in what ways different?
I think it is similar in that you are always learning new things and you are always learning about new technologies and trying to understand how you can best use them. You are still very close to the science. I still read a lot of scientific papers, look at data, analyse data. I think this is the part that is similar.
It is very different in that here you have much more breadth. In academia you are probably the top expert in the world in a specific field or area you work in. In VC, you are constantly changing – not only in a scientific aspect but also others. You have that birds-eye-view on drug development, which I think is very different from really knowing every detail of a field in academia. There is also the human component that is very important in Venture Capital. You interact with lots of different people every day and you do that in a slightly different way than in academia because you work with people that have very different backgrounds from yourself. I think these are the main differences.
What for you are the main challenges of working in Venture Capital?
I think the main challenge is the pace. You have to make an investment decision in a few months or even less. I think in investment, it is about the financing but it is also about building a partnership with the other party – and that is difficult to do in a small amount of time also because you are changing topics every time. But you need to build relationships with people because you are going to be working with a team of people for something like 5 – 10 years. You also need to have a network of good people, both entrepreneurs but also people in pharma.
Overall, you need to move really fast and adapt: otherwise, you are going to make wrong decisions.
And the most enjoyable?
I think the most enjoyable is really having that perspective on drug development. From an idea in a lab – which sometimes is a concept without even a result – all the way to getting to see a drug that has revenue and helps people but also provides jobs for other people. And you really get to contribute to the whole process and different scientific areas as well.
Your first role in venture capital was as a fellow, which was your part-time position. What do you think helped you get that role e.g. particular skills or activities from your time in the lab?
I don’t know if this is going to be the best advice, but in my case, the way I got there was to open a Twitter account and follow Biotech news. Also, investing a tiny amount of money in Biotech companies that are publicly traded in the stock market. The stock market is perceived as a casino by a lot of people but it is actually a great way for companies to get funding and develop their products. It is also a great way for people to participate in that: anybody can participate in that process of developing a drug. Just following the names and learning how companies do things, what companies are doing, what the exciting findings are, what exciting new technologies people are talking about. I think this is what really helped me a lot when getting into Venture Capital.
So really building up this knowledge and getting a little bit of experience?
Right, obviously I had the scientific background already – the science part that is also really important was already covered – but in order to build that more general knowledge, I got started through Twitter and specialized websites such as Endpoints News and STAT.
Was this fellowship, this part-time position, advertised?
That is another good point. It was not advertised and a lot of the positions in venture are rarely advertised, positions of any kind. Having a network is really important. Getting to know people who are working in venture, people who know people working in venture. I think this is really how most of the positions are filled. I got to know about this from someone I knew who knew a person at the VC firm.
That said, we do have a fellowship program at Ysios. It is a 6-month program addressed to scientists, PhDs and Postdocs. It is similar to what I did in the US which I think was really helpful to get to know Venture and the biotech industry. It does not mean that after the fellowship you have to stay in Venture. It is a really good experience for getting into any role in the industry, whether it is as a scientist or in business. We have more information on the fellowship program on our website.
So, the network and broader knowledge were important. Were there other skills and character traits you think you and other people needed to be successful in Venture?
I think you have to have broad interests. That is important. You have to be very critical with other people’s but also your own beliefs about certain technologies and ways of doing things. Also, the people aspect and networking are really important. This is something you need to do. You need to interact with people all the time, you need to like that and build a network because this is one of the most important aspects.
Would you have any tips on building a network while you are still a PhD or Postdoc?
I don’t consider myself to be really good at networking. I wasn’t the kind of person who would go to conferences and interact with lots of other people. I found that it was rather too difficult. I think that reaching out to people is easy if you show interest in what they do and if you show you have some knowledge about what they do and express the reason you are contacting them. You can contact people to discuss, sometimes even with a cold email, as long as you show that there is a reason behind and you’ve done your homework. And people are usually very open to discussing with you. I went on a lot of coffee breaks with people in the industry. This was back when I was in Boston and obviously times have changed a lot with COVID – but just email people you know or cold emails, and go for a coffee and have a short discussion and people are usually willing to help.
Is there anything we have not covered which you think is really important for PhDs and Postdocs to know that consider this an area to explore?
I think the only thing that I would add is that when you get into the private sector, and especially drug development, you realize that it is all a holistic process. Maybe you always thought of yourself as a scientist but in the end, there are a lot of aspects of taking a drug to the market that really matter. Sometimes you are just switching from one point to another – maybe now you are working on manufacturing or you are working on basic research or toxicology or in finance – but it is all in science. I don’t see it as something final but more as an ecosystem and all parts are equally important and exciting.
EMBL fellows and staff members can contact Jordi and other former staff/fellows working in venture and other non-academic roles via the EMBL Alumni Directory. Please see our article on informational interviews for ideas on how to make the most of such opportunities. Jordi can also be contacted by email, on LinkedIn and twitter.