The list of pharma giants in which Venrock Capital was an early investor is an impressive one indeed: Gilead, Biogen Idec, Millennium and Centcor, among others. Then there are the company's myriad successes in healthcare IT (athenahealth, Illumina) and biotech (Acceleron, Avalanche). In 1978, it invested a few dollars in a little company named Apple; in 1969, it chose Intel as one of its first investments. All of this is to say that Venrock has some tiny morsel of an idea of what it's talking about when it comes to investing.
So when Koh, the firm's in-house biotech ace, agrees to field a few questions about the current state of the business, it pays to listen. "There are three reasons why we've done well," he says. "First, we've gone after really big problems. Second, we're really good partners. And third, we're flexible. We're not committed or married to anything other than finding really great companies." If it were really that easy, of course, there'd be any number of investment firms with a track record similar to Venrock's. But, you know, there aren't, which speaks to the company's deep knowledge of and passion for healthcare. "There are many different ways you can build and invest in companies, but you have to have that mind-set of, 'Hey, let's not get overcommitted to one field.' The goal has to be building great companies," Koh says.
As for the therapeutic areas in which Koh sees potential, gene therapy tops the list. "It's finally coming of age," he says animatedly. "You're finally talking about cures, literally curing patients who couldn't be cured before. In modern medicine, there really aren't cures. Mostly you're just trying to control a disease. With gene therapy, you're looking for the cure." Koh is particularly bullish on a company he only identifies as "the gene therapy company," which he believes "is going to own 40% of all gene therapy" before too long. "Twenty years from now, when Nobel prizes are being awarded, they're going to be on the receiving end. I honestly believe this." —Larry Dobrow