People, Venture

Partnering with Amgen vet Sean Harper, veteran VC Beth Seidenberg unveils a $320M fund and a unique focus on…wait for it…LA

Beth Seidenberg is ending a brief quiet spell this morning, fulfilling expectations that she was piecing together her own biotech venture fund — and adding a few big twists that might take you by surprise.

First, Seidenberg told me in a preview to today’s announcement, she is launching Westlake Village BioPartners with a new and very high profile partner: Sean Harper, who recently stepped down from his perch as Amgen R&D chief to take a hands-on role as a newly reborn venture capitalist. Second, she plans to play a leading role in turning Los Angeles into the next significant biotech hub to be reckoned with, and they have $320 million to help light the fire.

What’s different from her former role at Kleiner Perkins?

“A number of things,” says Seidenberg. “First and most importantly I will have more capital to deploy that’s dedicated to life sciences than I had at Kleiner Perkins. Secondly, I have a great partner with Sean, with increased capacity to do more investing.”

And the third new consideration? Los Angeles.

“We’re siting the firm in Los Angeles,” she says, “which gives us a unique opportunity to start and build companies in LA.”

To be sure, Westlake isn’t restricting itself to LA. “We’re going to do investing where the best companies and the best entrepreneurs are,” says Seidenberg. But after watching the likes of Kite and Cougar and Amgen spinoff Atara take flight in the area, it’s time to start building a real hub around the talent pool at Amgen. And a dedicated life sciences firm can play a big role in that.

“If you’re building an ecosystem,” says Seidenberg, “building big companies, thats how you create the momentum and density of companies.”

“I think life is all about timing and I’m really ready for something,” says Harper, who’s looking forward to opening a new chapter in his own career that will occupy the next 10 to 15 years of his life.

Harper met Seidenberg at the start of his last career chapter, when he left Mass General to join Merck. They continued to work together at Amgen. 

“We’ve always worked well together,” says Harper, “always had this sense that one day we would work together again.”

And while Harper’s quick to acknowledge that he has a lot to learn about the nitty-gritty about venture investing, he’s happy that Seidenberg will be there to educate him. The science? He has that part down.

The two are also being joined by Scott Ryles, chief operating officer at Kleiner Perkins, who will be Westlake’s chief operating officer.

Talking to her group of new LPs, Seidenberg — who’s enjoyed backing some key cell therapy companies — hit hard on the notion that we’ve entered the “golden age” of biotech.

“I’ve never seen a better time for the proliferation of new technology,” she says. The investors were also attracted to an executive with a track record for helping incubate and grow companies that reached liquidity on average after about four years.

I asked Seidenberg about her biggest challenge, but she prefers to talk about opportunities right now.

“It’s more looking at it as what the opportunity is here,” she says. “The big opportunity and differentiator is really Sean and me.”

It’s not the money they have to invest, you see. At $320 million, Westlake will have a shot at investing in about 15 biotech companies — fairly standard in the field. But at a time money is pouring into biotech from all sides, there’s no shortage of cash out there for experienced teams with good science. But these are two individuals who are instantly recognizable in their community of investors, and that makes them players to reckon with from day one.

In fact, Seidenberg acknowledged that they’ve already done a couple of deals. But that news will have to wait awhile longer.

Image: Beth Seidenberg and Sean Harper. WESTLAKE VILLAGE BIOPARTNERS

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