Keep an Open Mind for a Successful Career in Biotech 

August 10, 2020 - 13 minutes

It can pay to take your time and keep your options open when choosing a life sciences career. Henrijette Richter, Managing Partner at French VC Sofinnova Partners, knows this from her experience of becoming a successful biotech investor. 

Richter started out as a scientist working in the industry and completed a PhD with the Danish pharma giant Novo Nordisk. After trying life as an academic researcher at MIT in the US, she decided it was not for her.

Wanting to try something new with broad future options, she first moved into VC investment at the Danish firm Vækstfonden. Going back to her roots, she spent some years building up Novo Seeds, the early-stage investment and company creation team of Novo Holdings, before moving to Sofinnova Partners in Paris to become a Partner in 2014. She is now a Managing Partner at Sofinnova Partners.

Her advice for a successful career is to take the time to make the right career decision and find a job that makes you happy.

What made you get into investing?

I was a postdoc at MIT from 2002 to 2004. One of the things I noticed while I was at MIT was that very few people came to work with a smile on their face and lots of them were still in the lab at 3 and 4 am. I was quite sure that that was not a life I wanted to have. It was incredibly stressful.

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In 2004, I returned to Copenhagen. I had a number of opportunities in terms of the route I wanted to take. I was quite sure that I was not, at this point in time at least, ready to go back to Novo Nordisk. 

I had to make the choice of where to go when I came back — should I go into a patent house, or into consulting, or into a VC firm? I made a list, writing down all the opportunities and connecting them with lines.

I decided that I was not going to choose a path that had only one line. I wanted to be open-minded and stay open for the next five years. And that’s when I thought coming in as an associate with a fund was an interesting choice, because it actually left several doors open for other things and would be sort of a training place.

How does working in investment compare with working as a scientist?

Initially, I had no idea what I was going to change to. I came from MIT, a very prestigious university, and actually felt I had a lot of things to bring with me into this new job. 

But it was clear from the first week that I had absolutely no clue what was going on. Every time we had a meeting, I didn’t understand a single word of what was discussed and it was actually quite anxiety-provoking. I was lacking the context and the deep dive, and that continued for quite some time.

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After six months, I had a real crisis. I wanted to go back into science, but I decided that instead of surrendering and going back to what I knew, I was going to try to go a little bit more into the financial part of things. I took more initiative in terms of getting to understand and learn, and I ‘took my space’, as we say.

I also started an MBA. After the first module, which was leadership, and a couple of other things, I actually decided that it was not going to be the MBA that would bring me to whatever I wanted to do. So I didn’t take the next two modules, and I’m super happy about that today. Instead, I just invested all my energy for a good number of years into understanding what investment was all about. 

Why did you move to Sofinnova from Novo Holdings?

At Sofinnova you raise a fund, you invest, and you go raise a fund again, whereas Novo is an evergreen fund, where the money invested is the returns of the shares that they own in Novo Nordisk, Novozymes, and a couple of other companies. So at Novo, you never raise your own money. 

I came to the realization that this was something I had wanted to do for a long time. For me, it’s really the best way to align yourself with the entrepreneurs that come and ask for money for their companies. Because you know the feeling they have when they come to ask for an investment — you do it yourself every few years. 

A headhunter reached out to me in the spring of 2014, and I still remember it. I said to her, ‘I only have one place that I want to go to. If you can’t tell me the company, then I don’t need to have this conversation because I’m actually quite happy here.’ I think it was one or two days later, she called me up again and said, ‘well, I can tell you now it’s Sofinnova Partners.’ And I remember smiling. I said, ‘Well, it’s funny because that’s exactly the place I wanted to go to, so let’s start talking.’

During the last couple of years with Novo, I looked at several deals with Sofinnova. I very much liked the way they processed things and the way they talked about the entrepreneurs, with a lot of respect and experience. At the same time, it was not a soft approach, but it was a very fair and transparent approach. 

I remember coming home to my husband and saying, ‘well, they offered me the job, but it’s in Paris.’ Luckily, I had a husband who said, ‘I think that sounds super exciting. Why don’t we go?’ 

When you make a geographical move like that, and you take your family to a country where no one understands the language and your husband is going to quit his job and go with you, it’s a much bigger decision. Actually, the Sofinnova part was the easiest decision. It was all the things around that, the practical things, the consideration of the family and the kids, that were much much bigger questions in my mind.

So I moved to Paris with my husband and my two daughters in 2014. And we were there for three years, but for personal reasons, we decided to relocate and I’ve been commuting from Denmark now for three years.

What have been your biggest management lessons in your career?

I think there have been several lessons. First of all, I would lie if I didn’t say that managing across systems and across cultures is not always easy. I come from Scandinavia so we do things slightly differently than in Southern Europe. It’s not that the way up here is better than other places. But here we have a very flat structure. There’s a lot of empowerment and almost zero hierarchy. So I think for me, coming to France, that was a very big difference. 

At the end of the day, it’s probably the combination of different ways of thinking and culture that’s going to give the best results.

When I was appointed managing partner we didn’t know that I was going to move to Denmark… Managing over the distance is sometimes a challenge because there’s nothing that trumps the situation where you’re in the same room with people. I think it’s working, but it’s working because I have some fantastic fellow managing partners that actually live in Paris and are in the office more than I am.

I also think it’s important to keep your mind open when you’re early in your career. I think for so many years initially, when you come out of university, you are on a learning path to figure out what it is that makes you really happy. And I always tell the younger people to not underestimate the ‘happy factor.’ 

At the end of the day, you are going to spend an enormous amount of time on your job. So, having that fundamental happiness around what you do and what you can contribute, but also learn, is super important. 

When I talk with younger people, I sometimes think they’re so focused on achieving something or getting to a certain goal that they forget the ‘soft’ things around work. I think it’s quite important because you need to work until you’re 68 or 70. If it’s not fun, you’re never going to be really good at it. 

What was your experience of coming back to work after having your children?

When I had my first daughter it was a bit of a traumatic situation. I had to stay home for most of a year. I remember coming back to work and I felt that no one could have a conversation with me if they could not ask me how my little daughter was doing. 

At some point, I had to tell them, ‘my brain is still here. You know, I’m not only a mum, I’m actually still Henrijette.’ I literally said that to a colleague. ‘Can we now have a conversation about work?’ I was a bit surprised about the time it took me to have people look at me as a colleague, and not as a woman who had just had a child. Eventually, you get there, of course, but it was a fight. 

Then I had our second daughter and it was much less complicated. I started working when she was very young compared to normal Danish standards where you’re home for 12 months. 

I think I had my first board meeting one and a half months after giving birth. Those are five hours long and with breastfeeding, it’s actually quite complicated. The interesting thing is that when I came back, I was at Novo then, nobody actually came and said ‘it’s so fantastic that you came back after so short a time and we really appreciate it’… I still got all these stupid questions on diapers and is she gaining weight, and again, I had to remind people that my brain was still functioning.

One of the things I say to some of the young people, and some of the people who have had children in the past at Sofinnova is, ‘take the time, you will get to your goal at some point, or to that feeling of being on the right path. But there are some things that are only for the moment it happens. Don’t let the moment go.’

I think this is especially important for women because we want to be measured on performance like men. But we actually do have a couple of things on our list that we can’t really compare. I think it’s important to embrace those moments, and don’t be stressed out about it.

There has been much discussion about the low number of women working at senior levels in biotech and VC firms. What are your thoughts on this?

For me, it starts with diversity. It doesn’t necessarily start with women. I love the diversity we have at Sofinnova from a people and culture perspective, even that people live in different places. 

I think we have come a long way in the last 10 years. There’s still a big imbalance. I don’t think we’re going to get to the balance by focusing too much on it. I think we will get much further if we focus on the general diversity. I think that’s much more important. 

I am actually, on purpose, not part of any of the female networks, which I have sometimes gotten in a little bit of trouble for. It’s not that I don’t like all the women that are in these networks. But I think I like to network diversely and across genders. That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes have conversations with some of the women I know really well about some of the challenges. But because I am at Sofinnova, where we have a total balance, I probably don’t feel it the same way as many other women would do.

When I look at some of the other European funds, I can see that there’s still a big imbalance and of course, being a lone woman in a group of nine men can be a huge challenge. But I’m just lucky to be in a team where at least it’s not an everyday problem and actually very seldomly an issue. 

In the current global situation with Covid-19, launching a new company or getting investment could be a challenge for entrepreneurs. What advice would you give people about trying to get an investment right now?

I think if you look at the activity we’ve had for the last three months, we have actually been doing business as usual in terms of the number of investments we have done. We even had some exits and so forth. So I think if anything we have shown ourselves and the world that despite a pandemic, you can run this business, and you can do it well.

I think this whole pandemic has shown that the relevance of life science and investing in life science is never going to go away. The importance of this whole area has just been emphasized. 

Entrepreneurs should definitely try and get investment. I would never plan on waiting. This pandemic has just shown us that a lot of things are completely unpredictable. I think when you try and calculate whether you should wait a month or two, or one year, you will find yourself in a situation where a lot of things have happened you never thought would happen.

It may take you longer to raise money. But you should definitely try to get investors. At the end of the day, it’s about the patients and the unmet need. If they were there before Covid-19 they are most likely still there and they most likely still need a better treatment option.

Looking back, what advice would you have given yourself when you started on the investment career path?

Today, when I sit and speak with companies, I always miss not having been operational myself in a biotech company. I think we’re going to see more and more young people switching in and out between having interim roles in a biotech company and being a principal in a fund. You see that a lot in the US already. 

If I should advise anyone, it actually goes along with what I said earlier, don’t go too narrow too early in your career path. But use the first five to eight years after you come out of university to figure out what it is that makes you happy and get an understanding of the various aspects within an area.

It’s also important to surround yourself with good people. Not only people who are famous and have ‘made it’, but also people whose ethical viewpoint you value and how they treat others. People you actually look up to both from a personal perspective and a business perspective. 

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