Got a PhD but don’t know what to do with it? Wondering what life is like outside the ivory tower? In this series, we speak to individuals who have completed their doctoral training and subsequently transitioned from academic research to a variety of roles in industry. We asked them about what prompted their move, and how their scientific training has helped further their careers. Any opinions in this article are personal and do not reflect those of the interviewees’ employers.
This week we spoke to Dr. Jessie Tong Wen Hao, a regional venture capital manager* at Santen Pharmaceuticals, to find out how and what prompted her to transition out of academia into investing.
*This interview was conducted when Jessie was with SGInnovate, before her transition to Santen Pharmaceuticals
BCS: What exactly does an investment manager do? What’s a typical work-day like?
Jessie: The job of an investment manager is to find potential investments. We can easily go through 200 different proposals even before making one investment. So, most of the day is spent on taking meetings, talking to potential start-up founders and understanding their project. If we find the project interesting, we do our own due diligence and talk to different people including doctors, medical device professionals and stakeholders. We also attend events to get more information. Once we have everything at our end, we spend time performing a final research and putting everything together.
BCS: What was the deciding factor that led to you go into venture capital after your PhD?
Jessie: For me I had always been interested in the start-up ecosystem even before my PhD. I went for NUS overseas college in my undergraduate which is an internship programme with strong emphasis on technology entrepreneurship. I was studying life-science during that point and thought a PhD degree would be interesting and useful. I was also lucky as I met my future PhD supervisor, Prof Hanry YU. Prof was also looking for someone to do translational research, with the goal of spinning out a company eventually, so it all happened along the way.
I didn’t want to be in academia, so after graduating I started looking for opportunities and happened to know that a venture fund was looking for help. I took a drastic pay cut to really get started but it wasn’t a very tough decision to make. Although it wasn’t directly related to my PhD, but I was brave enough to take that step and it paved the path to where I am today.
BCS: What was the biggest challenge/change when transitioning from research in lab to investing in start-ups?
Jessie: During my PhD my focus was on translational research rather than basic research but doing that wasn’t easy. It helped me understand the nits and grits of spinning a company out of a lab setting. There were many unknowns along the way, and it wasn’t easy to overcome all those hurdles, but I kept trying. So personally, for me that was one of the biggest takeaway that I got during my PhD.
BCS: What skillsets/qualities are necessary for a career in investment?
Jessie: For early stage investment, soft skills are very important. This is because you talk to different people especially founders and it is important that founders like you and are willing to share their vision. Once the trust is established, things such as how are you going to help them, how are you going to a find resources to help them and how can you convince people to help these early stage start-ups, all of this is driven by the connections you have established. A basic understanding of financial modelling and how does the market and industry work also go a long way. It is an on-the-job training and the learning curve is very steep.
BCS: Does one need to have a PhD to be an investment manager?
Jessie: PhD is definitely an added benefit because it helps you can understand the science, but it’s not a hard requirement.
BCS: What advice would you give someone interested in a career in venture capital.
Jessie: You must be good at networking and extremely comfortable in talking to anyone, be an emeritus professor, a young doctor or anyone working on the ground floor. Analytical skills are also important, as only when you have a good grasp of things, you can make an informed decision on whether the investment opportunity is valid or not. Technical skills often come secondary.
BCS: How often do opportunities like Investment manager/ Investor come in companies like SGInnovate?
Jessie: It depends, the good thing is that Singapore is well funded. If the real question is how much of these funds are focused on biotech, the answer is not much. There aren’t many opportunities compared to other type of investment such as Fintech or IT-based investments, so being involved in the start-up or translational ecosystem from the beginning is extremely crucial. It can’t just be a thought that you find investment interesting and that’s why you want to venture into it. It’s more of a lifestyle and you have to find it interesting from the heart. You can start by joining organizations like BCS or attending biotech events – something you find enjoyable and fun. Once you have established connections, talk to various people and that’s how you are likely to land a job.