BCS Career Interviews – Dr. Wen Qi Ho of ClavystBio
Our current biotech sphere is growing and developing each day, with new biotech and life sciences spin-offs and start-ups creating and sharing their latest cutting-edge research. Behind these companies, funding bodies such as VC (venture capital) firms are essential in partnering with these companies to achieve greater growth. In this interview, BCS Communications Lead, Zara Chung, spoke with Dr. Wen Qi Ho, previous Vice-President of Lightstone Ventures and current Director of Investments and New Ventures at ClavystBio. Read on to learn more about the transition from academia to VC. (Any opinions in this article are personal and do not reflect those of the interviewees’ employers.)
ZC: Hi Wen Qi, thank you for taking time for this interview today. So for my first question, do you mind sharing with our readers what motivated you to go into VC after your PhD and postdoc?
WQ: Yes, sure. Everyone starts off grad school thinking that they want to become an academic. During my PhD, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to many facets of how science can interact with business. I had many classmates and friends at that time who were dabbling in consulting gigs and creating start-ups. Additionally, there was an abundance of classes at the business school that was geared for PhDs to explore start-ups and other commercial paths. So it was in grad school that I realised my interests probably didn’t lie in becoming an academic. That kind of set the foundation for exploring opportunities beyond academia.
Coming back to Singapore, it was quite evident that the life sciences ecosystem was very young. So when the opportunity to join a VC fund was introduced to me – to explore, engage and accelerate growth of the life science ecosystem in Singapore – I absolutely had to jump on it.
ZC: You mentioned you had friends already dabbling in start-ups and consulting during grad school. Do you think there are differences in willingness to move out of academia locally versus overseas?
WQ: I don’t think so, grad students everywhere are focused; put your head down, do your work, and finish your thesis. I had far-sighted classmates at the time who started looking beyond the typical academic path, and these friends of mine found all these other avenues to channel their time. They explored many routes outside of academia and, for me, it was interesting to join them in the foray beyond academia. Looking at them gave me inspiration and ideas to follow along.
I believe it’s the same here in Singapore where there are different options to explore even while you’re in grad school. It depends on whether you are aware that there are other options and exciting things happening beyond academia, in the start-up scene. This is why when I returned to Singapore, and my friends were starting up the predecessor of BCS, it was very exciting personally to join them as BCS is truly a great avenue for PhDs, undergrads, and postdocs to have a platform through which they can access and experience aspects of life sciences outside of academia.
ZC: Yes, I definitely agree. I didn’t know that your friends were the predecessors of this BCS.
WQ: Well they founded the first version of it, and I joined shortly after. At that time, it was called Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable. We worked on bridging the gap between academia and the life sciences industry in Singapore. After some time, a new team came on board and I stayed on and that was when we rebranded as the Biotech Connection Singapore that you’re familiar with today. It has honestly been a great experience to be a part of BCS.
ZC: That’s nice to hear and thank you for setting it up allowing people like myself to be part of BCS today. I guess this follows into my next question on how it was like making the switch from academia to VC. Academia is known for focusing on very technical aspects so were there barriers to entry into the business or commercial world as you made this switch?
WQ: Well, with any new role, there will be learning curves. As you’ve touched on, some of the things I had to learn included identifying and performing thorough diligence on good science and technologies that could become potentially commercially viable. But all of these skills have to be learned on the job. The role is quite like an apprenticeship, and there are skills and knowledge that will be learned on the job itself. It’s definitely a steep learning curve because you have to think about science in a very different way from how you would have thought of science as an academic.
ZC: I understand what you mean. What sort of experiences will one need to have to work in a VC fund?
WQ: A general observation from other life science VC funds, not just in Singapore, is that most associates have some graduate-level degree. Typically people who work there have a combination of an MD degree, PhD degree, or an MBA. In addition to degrees, some have life science management consulting experience or prior pharma or biotech commercial or operating experience. It is a mixture of people from these backgrounds but regardless of the background, the individuals I have met are technically very knowledgeable with strong domain knowledge in biology or chemistry. Of course, we are talking about a life science-specialized VC. If it were a generalist fund or a tech fund, I think the expectations are very different.
Even within life science-focused VCs, different funds that focus on different stages of investments, e.g. early-stage vs. late-stage, will have different requirements on technical background and work experiences when they hire; it comes down to the types of investments the funds focus on.
ZC: I see. My next question is one that I think many people who attended and did not attend the panel discussion would like to know the answer to. How do you know if a VC career path is the path for you?
WQ: In the case of life science VCs, you really have to enjoy digging into the science and exploring the impact the drug or therapy could bring to patients. At the same time, you must also get excited by the commercial potential of these innovations. It’s not just science for the sake of science anymore. In terms of people skills, you definitely have to be someone who is energized by interacting and connecting with people.
In terms of work attitudes, being able to multitask and really think outside the box are important traits. Also of course you’ll also need to be excited by the prospect of intersecting science and business. If all these rings true to you, then perhaps it’s something for you to consider.
ZC: Could you perhaps share your journey with a typical start-up company that you’d invest in as a VC?
WQ: A lot of the work we do in the Singapore office is venture creation where we start life sciences companies. From walking the halls and talking to PIs, we identify interesting science that we think could potentially become a drug or therapy with commercial value. Once we identify a promising technology, we sit down with the PI and craft the startup plans that include research milestones, operational activities, financing strategies and budget. Typically, we model out a budget for the next few years to get a better sense of the timing and resources needed to get to key inflection points. If everyone is aligned, we will work towards securing the seed investment and spinning off the technology from the academic institution. Basically, we take a very hands-on approach when we start companies. We work very closely with the team on a day-to-day basis to ensure that the science and operational aspects of the company are tracking in the right direction. We will also work together with the company when it comes time for the next fundraise. Once a full-time management team comes on board, we will then scale back our day-to-day involvement.
ZC: Wow that’s very informative and interesting, thank you for sharing. Are there any entry-level roles that a person can take on when they want to move into VC?
WQ: We have seen funds take on MBA or graduate students as interns in the office, which could potentially materialise into a full-time role. Quite a few associates have a consulting background, which provides training in conducting technical diligence and provides exposure to the commercial aspects of science. Life science consulting work does provide training to frame how one conducts technology and commercial diligence, and develop a commercial strategy for the company; all that experience is helpful for entry roles in VCs. It’s not a prerequisite, but it is definitely useful and it helps your résumé as you’re applying for such roles.
ZC: Interesting. My next question is do you think you could share with us any current medical breakthrough trends that will be the highlight in the VC world?
WQ: With COVID, mRNA technologies have taken front and centre focus. Beyond mRNA, RNAs in general as a therapeutic modality or as a target for therapeutics is definitely something very exciting right now and a lot of investors are looking for innovative technologies there. Protein degradation as a therapeutic modality remains interesting, especially with the up-and-coming molecular glues, autophagy, or lysosomal-based degradation pathways. Those are all very interesting modalities. Also, with ENHERTU’s positive response last year, there’s been an explosion of interest in ADCs. Beyond these, AlphaFold coming out of its shell last year has really put a spotlight on AI and ML techniques. Applying such technology to drug discovery and in silico-based drug development has become a growing theme for many companies.
ZC: Hearing about all this is really very exciting! Do you think you could share about some of the more satisfying moments in your career, not just, as a VC but through your entire career thus far?
WQ: I think a very satisfying and heartening moment is to see that BCS, which started out with a small group of friends coagulating around OBR all those years ago has expanded and done really well. It’s really exciting to see how much BCS has accomplished over the years and I’m eager to see what else BCS will achieve in the coming years! So, that’s definitely very satisfying and I’m thankful I had a chance to be a part of it.
Beyond that, in terms of my work as a VC, it’s immensely satisfying when you see a technology grow from a few disparate pieces of data from a PI’s lab presentation into an independent company that is developing drugs for the clinic. It just makes you feel like some of the hard work has made some difference, and could one day, potentially become an approved drug.
ZC: Yes, I full-heartedly agree with that. So finally, is there any advice or parting words you could give to readers who might be thinking of venturing into?
WQ: Regardless of which line of work you want to move into, network widely, talk to as many people as you can to give yourself the chance to consider different paths and determine which path is the best fit for you. I mentioned at the panel discussion that in the second year of my postdoc, I wasn’t sure which line of work would be suitable for me, and I was trying to see what would fit me outside of academia. I was cold-calling people, getting introductions to people through my friends and their friends to speak with as many people as I could in different areas of life sciences – sales, marketing, field application scientists, and industrial postdocs. Speaking with people, getting a better understanding of what they do, will give you more insights to see if a job resonates with you.
It may not even have to be in traditional science positions. Right now there are many opportunities, for example, business roles in tech-transfer offices or patent agent roles in law firms, where it could be useful to have a technical background. But it does take time, effort and courage to put yourself out there, make cold calls, and reach out to others. My advice is to start early, network and make friends, and make sure to keep up with people and gather your insights to help you shape your thoughts on your career.