Building Venture Capital Partnerships to Develop the Cambridge Biotech Ecosystem

I ran the Venture Capital and Private Equity Society at Cambridge University and sit as the current chair. I’ve been working for my dream fund before I’ve even finished my PhD. These experiences led to a lot of learnings regarding forming and running VC programmes for students and gives a ‘playbook’ for doing this at your university.

TL;DR

  • I’ve built student venture capital partnerships with Start Codon, Investiere (Verve Capital Partners), Hummingbird Ventures, and made the introductions for a PwC Ventures Collaboration
  • 70+ Cambridge Students have gained hands-on experience in venture capital because of these programmes
  • None have this would be possible without fantastic funds, partners and committee members

Why change things?

Bioscience is important for two major reasons. It is the source of prevention and cures for many diseases, in the form of cell and gene therapies. It might also be able to lessen or reverse some of the impacts of climate change, for example through more sustainable agricultural practices or efficient carbon sequestration technologies. To alleviate human (and Earth) suffering now and in the future, we need able-minded and versatile scientists, business people, lawyers, and others that are able to translate scientific findings into scalable technologies. Successful VC programmes for students are one way towards achieving this goal. These programmes are, admittedly, one small step in the training of students, but a step previously inaccessible. The more people understand how ideas are translated (including VC), the better!

Why did I start this?

Hands-on experience is not an end, but a means to build a thriving and educated biotechnology community. Cambridge is one of the most prestigious biotechnology clusters in Europe, but I have noticed a consistent lack of opportunities for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students to learn about investment. This is a shame as many of these students will go on to become entrepreneurs, investors, and innovators themselves. But the truth is that you can sell your ideas more effectively when you’ve sat at the other side of the table.

That’s the goal for these programmes: no matter your career aspirations, there is value in understanding how the investment process works.

How do you do it too?

*Start small*

I started off naively helping run a ‘Breaking into Investment’ speaker series at the Cambridge University Venture Capital and Private Equity Society (VCPES). The members at that time had experienced contacts and taught me about the industry and how to get things off the ground. Besides knowing people, we cold emailed 20+ funds, most of which didn’t reply. That’s okay as those that did were really keen to teach us and the society about the industry. This was in the before-COVID times so we promoted the events online and to our listserv to fill up the Judge Business School room which we had booked. I wish I’d known a bit more about the industry as I was approaching these funds. This would have enabled better conversations. Nevertheless, we ran speaker events with Octopus Ventures, IQ Capital, Cambridge Innovation Capital, Tanto Capital Partners, and Innovate UK, and culminated with a Biotech Stock Pitch Competition.

(Pro-tip: Educate yourself by reading Zero-to-One, Secrets of Sandhill Road, Upstarts and a relevant magazine for your industry, like Nature Biotechnology as you’re getting to know the industry.)

Once you have a following, build

After a year learning the ropes, I became president of Cambridge University VCPES. We had gained hundreds of followers on Facebook and had a growing Rolodex of funds who enjoyed our dialogue and were keen to speak in future years. Still, I saw a disconnect between what the students wanted to learn and what the funds wanted to gain. As I was organising a speaker series, I would also ask funds if they wanted help in screening companies or deal sourcing from interested students. Most funds were interested, but Jason Mellad, Start Codon CEO was the first to believe in the programme and helped the society make it happen. We proposed that groups of students would diligence (competitive landscape, patentablity, freedom-to-operate) one company per week. The Start Codon Venture Promoter Programme was not only oversubscribed, but, after six months, Start Codon was both keen to continue the programme and wanted to level-up the top performing Promoters to a ‘Venture Scholar Programme’. With the expected growing pains, of learning how to organise a large programme, keep lines of communication open, and recruit relevant students there was real growth by those that undertook where many had genuine enjoyment in the due diligence process.

Past precedent allowed for further partnerships

To allow the greatest number of students hands-on experience in venture capital, we set up a further collaboration with Investiere — Verve Capital Partners. Students were tasked with developing an investment thesis in a new field and scouting in that area. Bernardo Bezzini (1st year Cambridge PhD) has led this collaboration as Verve Liaison at the Cambridge VCPES.

When this programme also became over-subscribed, we forged further partnerships with Hummingbird Ventures (led by me) and PwC Ventures. Michelle Parker (3rd year Cambridge PhD) led the collaboration with PwC as head of the Student Growth Programme.

In conclusion:

  1. Start small by educating yourself (reading books/magazines in the field)and reaching out to people you know in the industry and cold emailing those you’d like to know
  2. Organise speaker events and get to know the assets of the funds and students attending the talks
  3. Once you have a brand, build more significant collaborations, such as fellowship programmes
  4. This allows for more opportunities with other funds

None of this would be possible without:

  • Start Codon and Jason Mellad for believing in us from the beginning. Idin Jafari for helping me get it off the ground, Michelle Parker, Daniel Bode, Arqum Anwar, Aneesha Nadkarni, and all the participants for taking it forward.
  • Michelle Parker, Arqum Anwar, Daniel Bode, spent tremendous effort continuing the Start Codon Programming for which I am very grateful.
  • Michelle Parker and the whole marketing team really raised the level of the logos and branding which enabled a further reach and couldn’t be more thankful.
  • Funds and people willing to contribute to the society such as Verve Capital Partners (Bernardo Bezzini), Hummingbird Ventures (Pablo Lubroth), Cambridge Innovation Capital (Michael Anstey, Robert Tansley, Sohaib Mir), o2H Ventures (Sunil Shah), Tanto Capital Partners (Ozan Ozkural), IQ Capital (Max Bautin), M Ventures (LE Wallace) and others.
  • Huge thank you to Michelle Parker for taking the society forward — can’t wait to see what it does next.
  • Thanks to Lily Hands for making this article the best it can be.

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PhD Candidate In Plant Sciences | Interest in Biotech VC | Analyst at Hummingbird Ventures