Biotech & Health

Veteran healthcare VC Camille Samuels explains why trying to cure infectious disease is a lousy business

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Camille Samuels has spent the last five years as a partner with the healthcare venture firm Venrock and a dozen years before that with Versant Ventures, where she was a managing director. This self-described “grizzled veteran” of the industry has participated in companies that have collectively taken half a dozen drugs to market, though she typically prefers to work with seed-stage companies and even to help create them. (She’s helping bake one at Venrock now with a founder who has been in the firm’s portfolio for numerous years.)

We talked with Samuels earlier today to see if she sees any opportunity in disaster — specifically, the coronavirus that has so much of the world on pins and needles. She explained why going after infectious diseases is tricky from a funding and company-building standpoint, and why what really excites her is aging biology. Parts of our chat, edited lightly for length, follow:

TC: Every day, we’re seeing more coronavirus cases in the U.S. and other parts of the world grappling with this. Do you see opportunity in this disaster?

CS: Well, it wouldn’t make sense for me to create a de novo business today [around this coronavirus]. The reason that infectious disease is hard is pricing permissiveness.

TC: Meaning…

CS: The reason you hear about cancer and orphan diseases so much is that you can price high in those areas. In therapeutic areas where you can’t price high because there are already a bunch of generics on the market — pain, depression, other huge unmet needs — you don’t see as much innovation.

It’s a matter of [businesses] following the incentives. With infectious disease, you’ve got this problem that maybe someone even a year ago predicted might become a problem, but when it’s a potential and not an actual problem, it’s hard to get investors to fund something like that.

Also, this is something that mutated in animals and got into humans, so we couldn’t have come up with a therapeutic ahead of time. Even if a [vaccine] is created now, it inevitably won’t cure what [new virus] comes next, which explains the pricing permissiveness. If [a cure comes along], isn’t it your instinct to give it away for free? It is mine. On top of that, if someone survives Covid-19, it’s done. They’re no longer a potential customer. In tech, [founders and investors] want to create products that people interact with three times a day for the rest of their lives.

TC: So we shouldn’t hold our breath for a coronavirus vaccine? Doesn’t Gilead have something in the works? I saw its shares were soaring.

CS: Gilead is soaring because it has an anti-viral that may work already in these patients. There are companies that have technology to apply today that might help, but don’t expect a bunch of new companies around Covid-19 because that’s yesterday’s problem by the time these drugs get to market.

TC: As an investor, how do you break down what’s worth funding? Are there certain verticals that you’re chasing?

CS:  At Venrock, we try not to be heuristic driven [based on rules of thumb]. We think [it can lead to] lazy thinking or saying no to something that could be awesome. Instead, we look to do orthogonal investing to address big unmet needs with great people. So for me, aging biology has been lighting my fire for many years now.

I’m on the board of Unity [a company that went public in 2018 and is working on drugs and treatments that can make people free of the diseases associated with aging for as long as possible]. I’m [involved with Venrock-backed] Corvidia, which is working on reducing inflammation in people with kidney disease who functionally die of heart disease. I’m forming a seed startup right now around a founder who is focused on aging. In general,  the big idea of improving health span is what really interests me. I want us to extend out the years that we can be healthy and happy versus on medication and decrepit.

TC: I understand that you’re a health fanatic.

CS: In my personal life, I am. I exercise like crazy; I take supplements; I eat my veggies; I do all the meditation apps and hang out with my kids and pet our dog.  [I also do] time-restricted eating, or intermittent fasting, meaning not eating during 14- to 16-hour windows.

TC: Why do this?

CS: On a macro level, your body will only start burning fat 12 hours after your last meal. But the health reason ties to a process called cell autophagy, which you can think of like the garbage disposal for your body’s damaged cells [making way for newer, healthier cells]. It’s a process that starts to decline in function as we age; it doesn’t function as well as can sicken the [good] cells, and [the fasting helps kickstart that process].

TC: Does this explain your interest in Unity?

CS: With Unity, one day, some time ago, I was reading the New York Times, and there was an image of two mice that were brothers. One looked ancient. It was gray, bent, small, its eyes had cataracts. The other mouse looked terrific. One had gotten an intervention and the other didn’t. And I emailed [Unity founder and serial entrepreneur] Ned David and I said, ‘Ned, I think this is your next company.’ I was apparently the third person to email him this. It just smelled like a Ned project. But I’m often there at the very beginning and for me, that provides me with the most personal satisfaction.

TC: What do you say to skeptics?

CS: If you’re familiar with the Gartner hype cycle, it’s hype, then disillusionment, and only after that does real value get added. There was a lot of hype in biology, 10 to 15 years ago, and companies like Unity are still having to contend with the hangover from that bacchanalia. But I don’t think much is overhyped in biotech right now. I think other investors are going to discover aging biology in the next couple of years as being really important.

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