Three Lessons an Investor Can Learn from Biotech Entrepreneurs

Antoine Papiernik Sofinnova Partners Biotech Entrepreneurs

Sofinnova Partners’ Chairman and Managing Partner, Antoine Papiernik, describes his company’s ‘Wall of Fame’ showcasing its entrepreneurs and how their years of experience provide a source of inspiration for venture capitalists. 

Every time I walk through our Paris office, I am greeted by a wall of photos showcasing some of the top entrepreneurial minds that we have had the privilege to partner with. Their portraits, each as unique as their accomplishments, are a striking reminder of why I do what I do and quite literally, frame several important lessons in my career

If you turn the portrait of one of our entrepreneurial luminaries around, it reveals a surprising juxtaposition — a hidden photo of the same man, taken decades ago when he was a rebellious youth playing rock and roll. 

This surprising juxtaposition is a lesson in itself, that a spirit of disruption is often needed to find success in building startups. Who else but someone who marches to the beat of their own drum would have the audacity to look at a problem that thousands might have already examined and exclaim, “Eureka, I have a solution!” 

Here are three insights, among the dozens I have learned from these pioneers, that I’d like to share with you today. 

Lesson 1: The importance of investing in people 

What is the most important investment we make at Sofinnova Partners? You might be surprised to hear that it’s not a figure in euros. For us, it’s the people. The foundation of any idea is the strength of those who are committed to nurturing it from seed to success. And that’s what I see when I look across our Wall of Fame — entrepreneurs with track records we want to put on repeat.

Jean-Paul Clozel, a cardiovascular doctor who co-founded the Swiss biotech firm Actelion with his wife Martine Clozel, also a physician and scientist, and a couple of other colleagues from Roche, is a stellar illustration of someone with the characteristics that can be a lightning rod for prosperity. 

I remember more than two decades ago being on the board of Actelion, when Jean-Paul said: “You know, there’s this drug that I think we should develop to address an unmet clinical need, pulmonary hypertension.” 

The funny thing is, it was a drug that was not in the business plan for an indication that was not in the investment thesis. Still, Actelion became a $30B company on the basis of this drug. I came away from this experience with an understanding that it was not the unwavering track of the business plan that was as important as the talent of the team and the vision of its driven leader. 

You need to back people that you can rely on, because ultimately you can bank on them more often than you can predict how the science is going to land. An inherent quality I look for, and one that is rampant among those in our gallery, is a nimbleness to adapt. Even if that means a sea change from where one starts out on the journey. 

Another example of someone I’d back over and over again is Daniel de Boer, who founded ProQR in 2012. A few years earlier, Daniel’s newborn son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, an incurable rare genetic disease. Daniel dedicated his life to trying to help treat his son and others with the same illness.

Fast-forward to today, and the focus of the company has completely changed. It’s now devoted to correcting RNA mutations for eye disease because, as is often the case, the original plan didn’t stay linear. His son ultimately got very well treated with a drug from another biopharma, and instead of closing down his initiative, Daniel saw the opportunity in ProQR’s unique technology and pivoted to ophthalmology. I’ve learned to look for people like Daniel who have such strong entrepreneurial spirits at the core.

Lesson 2: The foresight to follow one’s vision 

Looking at the picture of the prolific inventor Jacques Seguin, I am often struck by the simple tenet that following an entrepreneur’s vision is the key to our business. 

Jacques is the founder of a medical device company called CoreValve. This was the first investment we did with him. Together, we helped create a billion-dollar business for the company that eventually bought it. 

Jacques is someone with true intuition. This is something serial innovators have in common, whether they develop the startup themselves or whether they are drawn to the right people and back them.  

As a cardiac surgeon, Jacques was performing aortic valve operations on patients every day. He had an ‘aha’ moment where he clearly saw an opportunity that nobody else did up to that point: finding a minimally invasive way of replacing the valve. Leveraging years of experience and connecting what could appear as a series of disparate dots allowed him to pump life into the now $5B-a-year industry of minimally invasive valve implantation. 

I remember calling cardiac surgeons around 15 years ago during my due diligence of the company and asking their opinion. They said, “Why would you do that? We’re doing it the way we’ve been trained to do it and it works fine.” Maybe it worked fine for them, but for the patients, it was a different story. 

A true innovator is never satisfied with ‘fine,’ but is rather always trying to figure out what it is that needs to be changed and improved. In French we say, “Life is not a nice-looking stream of water,” and it is not. It’s a convoluted path. If you find someone unafraid to stray from convention’s path, you just might have found someone who could someday be on your wall of great entrepreneurs. 

Lesson 3: Patients’ lives are our end goal 

One core value that seems intrinsic in those I admire is a passion and drive to bring new products to the patients that need them.

Anyone with a big idea that comes to us and says, “We have a billion-dollar moonshot here and it’s going to be massive,” but does not make it clear that fueling their rocket is a deep desire to address an unmet patient need, is unlikely to succeed. At least in my mind anyway. 

You may have read about the two co-founders of BioNTech and their drive. These are scientists and physicians who are interested in helping people first. That might sound very cheesy, but it’s true.  

One powerful figure that personifies this quality is Gabriella Camboni, who we’ve backed three times already. Gabriella first and foremost wants to treat patients. Besides being a wonderful human being, she’s a physician before everything else. 

Working side-by-side with Gabriella is Silvano Spinelli, another one of our exceptional entrepreneurs and a close business partner of Gabriella’s. Together, we developed a first oncology company called Novuspharma, then another one called Ethical Oncology Science, and then co-founded a startup accelerator in Italy called, BiovelocITA. While these are three different ventures, the connecting thread was our unified goal of helping patients. 

That is what makes me the proudest when I look at our wall of entrepreneurs. Not the financial success they created, which of course is an absolute must to stay in the business in which I am, but the people whose lives were improved and saved through their vision, drive, and dedication. Because in the end, the greatest lesson of all is that there is nothing more valuable than life itself.

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