partner at Venrock
It’s a good time to be a founder of a health, biotech, or biopharma company, as venture dollars once reserved for tech-only startups are flowing into the sector. But after a series of high-profile blow-ups – Theranos being the most prominent and sobering example – it’s fair to wonder whether some of these investors know what they’re looking for.
Samuels is decidedly not one of them. A partner at Venrock with a focus on healthcare, she built her career in and around the industry. Armed with a bachelor’s in biology from Duke and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, Samuels cut her teeth as a management consultant to healthcare and biotech companies. She then headed up business development at Tularik, which was acquired by Amgen in 2004 for $1.3 billion.
In 2000, Samuels transitioned from working for healthcare companies to investing in them. As a managing director at Versant Ventures, she led investments in a number of successful startups. Her early hits included NovaCardia, which was acquired by Merck, and ParAllele, which was acquired by Affymetrix.
At Venrock, Samuels is focused on investing in biotech, medical devices, and consumer health startups. Unlike many of her peers, she views the capital flowing into the sector with some trepidation. “A lot of people are taking tech money for their series A — often at too high of a valuation,” Samuels said at a recent panel on the topic, adding that these companies often struggle to raise additional funds in later rounds because they’re overpriced.
The bubbly environment also sets the groundwork for the emergence of another Theranos, a scenario Venrock partners Bryan Roberts and Bob Kocher have predicted will play out in 2018. “We think at least one healthcare IT company with an enterprise value of more than $1 billion will be exposed as not having product results to support their hype,” they wrote in a recent op-ed. “It will also expose embarrassed investors, who did not do careful diligence, and founders with poor integrity.”
In light of all the distracting hype, what does Samuels actually get excited about? Like many in Silicon Valley, she is passionate about longevity science. She sits on the board of Unity Biotechnology, a company working to minimize the effects of aging by targeting old cells. In a 2016 Q&A, she explained the goal is to “extend human health span, not necessarily lifespan, although aging science is achieving both goals for mice and has seen the earliest data in people.”