Over the summer, I’ve had the pleasure of working at Alix Ventures, an early stage healthcare and life sciences focused venture capital firm currently in Fund 1 and less than a year old. This experience has provided me an inside look into Silicon Valley and the characteristics and challenges of early stage companies in biotech, but most importantly, an incredible learning experience that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in entrepreneurship and the life sciences industry.
For context, I am a rising 3rd year undergraduate at Johns Hopkins studying Biomedical Engineering and Applied Math, who prior to the summer had intentions of applying to medical school and becoming a physician innovator. I had worked previously within the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Johns Hopkins including in startups, tech transfer offices, school clubs, and am also involved in bench science research in drug delivery and immuno-engineering. I had a strong interest in venture, specifically in biotech and the life sciences but I had never worked in such a position before.
My plan for the summer didn’t initially involve Alix. I had accepted a research fellowship position in Dr. Michael Snyder’s lab at Stanford but it was unclear whether I’d be able to continue due to Covid-19 restrictions. As a result, I applied for Alix on a whim, and before I was able to find out about the status with research, I was already onboarded to the Alix team. It was fast and high touch, a critical component of the team culture. The entire process consisted of just a case study and a phone interview.
Since the firm is so young, the ‘team’ is tight knit and always busy. For a good portion of the summer, it was essentially a one man show (Chas Pulido), with the venture fellows (myself and 3 others) supplementing part time. As a result, we worked extremely hard to get the fund off the ground with new content, research, and portfolio operations initiatives. My job at Alix was technically my second priority, since my research was bioinformatics related and able to be completed remotely. Still, I was able to write five market deep dive reports ~20 pages each, 15 articles for the BIOS Medium publication, earning the title of ‘Top Writer in Venture Capital’ from Medium, and sat in on countless other calls with VCs and pitch meetings with founders. One positive aspect of the coronavirus has been the opportunity to bite off more than you can chew.
The team itself was run very well. Tasks were assigned almost daily on a Notion board and we had calls 2-3 times a week to check in and ensure progress was being made. Outside of the opportunity to sit in on any of the calls on Chas’ calendar, another fellow on the team, Amanda Tu, organized a speaker series where investors/founders would talk and answer questions from our team and fellow mixers where we would get to meet interns from other firms. We got personal introductions to whoever we asked.
The most important outcome from this experience has been the learning experience. I’ve summarized the most important lessons learned below:
The number one trait or ability this experience has given me is an ability to critically think about and evaluate ideas. As an undergraduate, let’s face it, we don’t have much to offer except an abundance of time and energy. I am often in awe of the accomplishments of PhD students and professors and this can be very unproductive. Everyone needs to bring strengths to the table (be smarter than others in some aspect) in order to have a seat and have a productive conversation. For most students, when you are talking to professors or even PhD students, this strength is missing. Alix has provided the entrepreneurial and business model expertise for me to confidently walk into conversations with something to offer.
Venture has also provided a sort of desensitization to seemingly amazing ideas, and an ability to evaluate them based on a concrete mental framework. A corollary of this is being smart enough to digest and critically analyze is the ability to differentiate between signal and noise. One way that this was described to me was that ‘your bullshit meter gets calibrated’. I’ve begin to evaluate things independently, where before I might rely on others to form an opinion.
The greatest asset of any experience is the people you work with, and the Alix team is first class. Chas, the general partner of the fund, is a 3rd generation healthcare CEO and previously went through YC as the founder of Pareto, a stem cell marketplace company. His father, Mark Pulido, is a six time healthcare CEO of companies including Novartis and McKesson, and has a role in operations at the firm. The other fellows Amanda (Stanford ‘20; incoming consultant at Oliver Wyman), Joy (Harvard ‘19; USCF MD ‘23), and Jessica (Harvard ‘21) are all top notch as well. From now on, a key consideration of where I decide to spend my time will be the backgrounds and experiences of not only management but fellow interns.
Another important lesson has been to set your own pace for what you want to accomplish, and not to play by anyone else’s rulebook. This has two upshots: 1. Anything you do should be done for your own personal development (don’t waste your time making someone else’s dreams come true) 2. There is no path you are ‘supposed’ to take (You don’t need a PhD to start a biotech company; no one cares if you did a PhD in 3 versus 7 years). Long term planning is essential, but make the goals development based rather than accomplishment based. The most successful founders I’ve had the chance to talk to worked on things because of interest and passion, not to earn a badge of honor.
- Don’t read papers, just do experiments to learn
- Don’t do too many things that you cant exceed expectations anymore
- Figure out where the world is going, build a path for yourself to get there
- Try try and try again to make scientific progress
- Long hours and hard work are the key to success
- One of the saddest types is an entrepreneur that tries to turn PhD project into a startup
- You will spend months on projects that you will pivot from (doing simulations)
- Doing a startup as your first job is very difficult
- Never wait for an excuse to do something
- All advice cancels out to zero