Bill Maris brought in Krishna Yeshwant as a Google Ventures partner back in the early days of 2009. The Harvard MD/MBA with a computer sciences background at Stanford and a track record of his own starting and selling software companies had that blend of education, youthful experience and cross-pollinating intellect Google wanted to bring to its investment group.
Maris is leaving now, but Yeshwant is staying put, running a cross-country life sciences team that continues to hunt out pre-fledgling investments in biotech. Where most VCs in the biotech world operate with a very clear exit strategy — whether they’re going for the long throw of a distant IPO or a quick value maker 12 months from the first money in — Yeshwant and his crew members are happy to play the long game, without keeping an eye on the clock.
They proved that with Yeshwant’s first investment, when Google Ventures — now branded simply GV — backed Tillman Gerngross’s antibody production shop Adimab, near Dartmouth.
“In a big way, Tillman took a bet on us,” Yeshwant tells me of the then newly spawned venture group and his own new career in VC.
Adimab wasn’t going for the quick flip, an IPO or any kind of overnight success that would make Google suddenly richer. But that wasn’t the point. Now valued at more than half a trillion dollars, the mother ship at the online search engine-turned-tech-conglomerate isn’t trying to impress anyone with its ability to pick winners. What it does want to do, through its venture teams like the one Yeshwant leads, is back people working on ideas that can offer a lasting, real impact on society.
For most VCs, that might sound a trifle glib. Google’s track record, though, backs it up.
Yeshwant is the polar opposite of a late-stage investor. He and his team like to get started discussing companies while they are still in the idea stage. Big ideas in infectious diseases (and where it blends into cancer R&D), diagnostics, rheumatology (which overlaps with their immunology work) as well as the whole payer/provider universe are top of mind these days. Immuno-oncology, which has been exploding with new research pacts this year, is still just scratching the surface of its potential, says Yeshwant.
Yeshwant’s exit strategy: “We think of it differently,” he says, gauging success by the “impact on the patient.” Exits are on the back burner. Making new entrances and tackling big ideas, that’s what attracts the attention of Google’s venture players.
Google’s venture group is by no means devoted entirely to life sciences, but it has made the high risk/high reward industry its biggest single focus. Adimab has been followed by a string of biotech investments in companies like Forty Seven, an oncology startup that recently sprang out of the lab of Stanford’s Irv Weissman with a remarkably advanced plan for human testing. And there was an early stake in Editas, one of a small group of gene editing upstarts that hope to use CRISPR/Cas9 tech to revolutionize medicine—years from now. One of GV’s biggest investments is in the Big Data outfit Flatiron as well as Foundation Medicine, which is using emerging molecular information to guide treatment.
Yeshwant likes to play in the messy, wreck-filled intersections of healthcare that need the most help, like the point of contact between payers and patients.
“We try to ignore distinctions,” says Yeshwant, “and start to think of the big areas that need to be worked on.”
Longevity figures prominently in its thinking. Inevitably, that turns to comments on disrupting notions about life span and attention-grabbing headlines built on living hundreds of years. But that can be a distraction as well. GV may be thinking of the longterm, but its companies are also making practical advances, blueprinting clinical schedules and dealing with the realities of product development — within the current constructs of a normal life span. GV is focused on the “underlying mechanisms of aging,” says Yeshwant, like Google startup Calico. And they’re following that into different companies which are trekking a path that leads to diseases which can be addressed by new technology.
It’s a different way of looking at drug development from a venture group that prides itself in embracing different ways of thinking.
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