Author: Madeline Hall, BRV Fund Manager
Madeline: Thank you so much for your time today, it is great to connect again. To kick us off, I’d love it if you’d tell us about your background. Where were you prior to Johnson and how did you get interested in VC?
Chidozie: Prior to Johnson, I was a public market investor. I wanted to get my MBA to transition from public to private markets where I believed I could develop an information advantage and contribute to innovation. I wanted to invest in work that would impact human lives and biotech is a good place to do that.
Chidozie: There’s always going to be an exploratory aspect of what somebody does early in their career. It’s important to make sure you’re attentive to lessons that you learn about what you do and don’t like. The public markets evolved while I was involved with them; when I started in the early 2000s, high frequency trading was not a thing, and within a decade it became a significant force. The things that were interesting about public markets for me—for example, the research to understand how the world works—became more characteristic of private markets than public markets.
Chidozie: My interest at first was not specifically in venture. It was broader in nature. I came to Johnson knowing I needed to explore exactly what asset classes I was most drawn to because private markets are still a pretty broad constellation. There’s a set of directly academic things I did and then there’s a set of social things, but both hinge on this fulcrum of wanting to go to a small school with a supportive community, which I think is best measured by response rate to communications like cold emails. Career success is in a lot of ways a team sport; I don’t think I would have even heard about Partners Group if it weren’t for somebody who graduated Johnson the year before me, who I was at a wedding with a couple weeks ago! Those sorts of interactions are driven by high response rate and not treating each other like competitors, but transitions to actual, concrete, tangible opportunities that you can pursue. Additionally, Professor Ronnie Michaeli, Gideon Saar and other folks who taught basic finance all the way through to investments made a big impact, and the experience that I got as Course Assistant – basically taking courses a second time – was very helpful. The social atmosphere and network at Cornell is what brings you to the table and the academic aspect is what prepares you to perform when you get there.
Chidozie: SymBiosis came out of the family office where I worked, doing direct investments. One of the family principals had a personal interest in biotechnology that drove the investment team to take a broad survey and speak to dozens of experts, ultimately determining that it was a growing and investable space. Humanity is in the early stages of biology becoming engineerable and we understand enough about the basic building blocks of the science that we can reliably create effects at scale by manipulating those building blocks. When we looked at it from a historical perspective, it was obvious that biotech was going to be a much bigger part of the economy than it had been. This was just like chemistry becoming engineerable in the late 19th century, and post-classical physics becoming engineerable in the mid-20th, which led to innovation and both of those areas becoming a bigger part of the economy. We thought that the highest value expression of engineering biology was going to be in human therapeutics, and so SymBiosis is investing in companies engineering biology to treat serious and life-threatening diseases. We invest in companies exploring genetic medicines, cell therapies, biologics, and precision small molecules to address diseases ranging from oncology to central nervous system disease, cardiometabolic disease, infectious disease and gastrointestinal disease. We’ve made over 30 investments, and typically invest $5 to $30 million per company. We spend about 50% of our time in series B and C, a quarter of our time in series A, and a quarter of our time in the crossover and public space. We like to facilitate the first round in which the company is going to get to clinical proof of concept. We also invest globally, with the portfolio distributed around 25% West Coast, 25% East Coast, 25% the rest of the US, and 25% non-US. We are also working to build a biotechnology ecosystem in Arkansas where we are based.
Chidozie: In depends on the indication. Typically, we want to invest in drugs about to enter a phase of clinical trials where they will get first human proof of concept. In larger indications like metabolic disease, we like to facilitate phase 2 studies because phase 1 is done in healthy volunteers and phase 2 is the first time you see it in patients. Oncology drug testing, by contrast, is done in patients from phase 1, not healthy volunteers. In genetically defined rare or orphan diseases, which are often pediatric, you may not be able to find enough people with that rare disease to run a large trial. Therefore, your phase 1 in those diseases will also be done in those who have the disease and not the healthy volunteers. We facilitate phase 1 studies for those disease categories.
Chidozie: While venture markets have frozen up a little bit, I think there’s still a lot to be excited about in terms of scientific progress. For example, mRNA has certainly blossomed because of the COVID vaccine. We’re also seeing an appetite for GLP-1 agonist, the injectable weight loss drugs, allogeneic cell therapy, in vivo gene therapy, and gene editing. Also, oligonucleotides more broadly, whether it’s antisense or siRNA. The best companies in biotech have always used cutting edge computational techniques long before ChatGPT entered public consciousness, and we’re excited by continued application of computational techniques. I’m excited by the pace of innovation and its continued ability to drive super interesting clinical results.
Madeline: I’m glad things are moving forward with the innovation in this space. I would love to learn more about your engagement with SymBiosis’ portfolio companies. I know you’re a board member at several companies. What does your engagement look like?
Chidozie: We are engaged in many ways. In general, we’re an investor that both leads and follows and has capacity to invest in each company across multiple rounds. We need the engagement to be appropriate to the role we’re playing in steering the company and to the role that company is playing in our portfolio. The baseline is that we are always available to the management teams of our companies, whether we are a lead investor or not, whether it’s a big check for us or not. We want to give them reassurances that they can always call on us, and there are companies who do that on a regular basis. It’s a function of what are the challenges that the company needs to solve and who should or can be involved? Whether that’s on the preclinical side with challenges like indication selection, on the clinical side with manufacturing, or with introductions to potential business development partners, we look to provide anything from an investor perspective, a capital markets perspective, and introductions to other investors, all the way through to helping with challenging technical issues and hiring the right people. From a board perspective, proper stewardship and governance is important in making sure that companies are appropriately thinking through their strategic positioning, their cash burn and other critical considerations.
Chidozie: I suggest not down-selecting to VC too quickly. Instead, I would focus on understanding the result that you want in the world. What kinds of businesses do you think are interesting? What sort of operational or capital market problems do you think are important that you may be particularly well equipped to solve? The particular asset class or the type of investment company you end up in should reflect your answers to those questions.
Last, everybody who does hard things needs to have a certain degree of comfort with pain. And you know, the shiny object theory doesn’t survive pain. Often VC is that shiny object, and you need to be really sure it’s for you in order to bear the inevitable pain.
Madeline: Awesome, I love that answer. Again, Chidozie, I really appreciate your time. You provided some great answers about your investment experience and the story of SymBiosis. Thank you so much and I look forward to staying in touch!