Advice for my Younger Self: How to Be a VC in Life Sciences

08/03/2021 - 5 minutes

Antoine Papiernik, Chairman and Managing Partner at Sofinnova Partners, looks back at where he was two decades ago and shares what he would tell his younger self about being a life sciences VC.    

I am not a scientist or a doctor. Twenty years ago, when I was starting my career in this business, someone like me, without the highest scientific and medical credentials, still had a chance. 

Today, the people we hire are infinitely better geared up to do this job than I was. That said, a science degree will only take you so far. Here’s why.

Lesson 1: Learn to see beyond the science 

Learning the ropes in this industry is like learning a craft. You can study biology and chemistry in books, but you also need an extra layer of know-how and intuition, which can only be acquired through practice. It’s all about learning by doing. 

Picture this: you have a jigsaw puzzle to solve. Half the pieces are missing, and most of the remaining pieces are upside-down. You must decide, with this limited information, whether you are looking at the next Mona Lisa. This is what it’s like to be a VC in life sciences.  

Yes, scientific knowledge is very important, but being able to make a decision quickly with incomplete information also requires an entirely different skill set. 

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It’s about knowing how to ask the right questions, without getting too bogged down in the details. It’s about being able to project beyond the science, trusting your gut feeling, and taking a leap of faith. Honing these skills takes time and practice.

We see countless deals a year. The more deals you see, the more puzzles you tackle, the more you can sharpen your instincts and train yourself to recognize patterns. It’s all about accelerating that learning. 

So don’t just look at the stars. Envision the galaxy. Learn to place the stars in a multidimensional space to be able to see the full potential. This is what it takes to spot that next masterpiece. This is what it takes to become a really good life sciences VC.

Lesson 2: Analyze the data, but invest in the people

When we look at an investment opportunity, we do our homework. We examine the idea, we talk to the experts, we dig deep into the data. But at the end of the day, we invest in people. 

This business is all about the people. It’s about learning how to interact with co-investors, limited partners, and entrepreneurs. It’s about knowing how to listen, discern, negotiate, and find common interests.

When we hire an investment partner, educational credentials are only the baseline. What we look for above and beyond schooling is compassion, humility, and empathy. We look for people who have had life experiences that have shaped their values, perspective, and ethics. We look for those inherent people skills, which cannot be taught. 

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Why is this so important to us? Because we don’t just invest in great innovation, we invest in people. So we need people who are good with other people.  

We encounter countless scientists and entrepreneurs who come to us for funding for an idea or a concept that is very dear to them. We may appear to be in a position of power and they may see us as a decisive factor in their future. But it’s important to remember not to let it get to our heads. 

We can’t forget we are dealing with people who are experts in their field. We invest in more than an idea, we invest in the people who are behind the idea and the people who will bring it to fruition. That is why we have backed the same entrepreneurs multiple times. It’s about our confidence in that person and our ability to work with them to make an idea grow to its full potential.

So don’t forget to treat people the way you want to be treated. It’s all about the interactions you create. Don’t forget that empathy and humility go a long way. In this job, success is more likely when you play the long game. 

Lesson 3: Be audacious, shoot for the moon, get results

Finally, to thrive in this industry, you need to be bold enough to take leaps of faith. You won’t land on your feet every time. But you need to be able to succeed with enough consistency to build a solid track record. 

We are not in a business where we can consider discounted cash flows. We get in early. So early that sometimes it’s just an idea we are incubating. This job is not about downside protection. It’s about shooting for the moon. 

We must remember that we are only one link in the chain. In the end, we also must also convince our limited partners to invest and trust in our investment thesis. And to do that, we have to show results. Consistent, significant results.  

Being a VC in life sciences is a lifelong journey of learning. It’s not a career that can be automated. It’s like being a jeweler or carpenter who learns the basics of a craft, then continually hones those skills to become an expert artisan. It’s about mastering the art of pattern recognition and intuition in order to spot those gems among the rubble and separate the wheat from the chaff.

It takes a lot of passion and grit and desire to push through the uncertainty, to overcome the doubt, and to trust your instincts. But when you start learning how to recognize the patterns and start landing those returns that are out of the park, then the rewards can be infinite.

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