Discover more from The World In A Grain of Sand by KdT Ventures
Who I am: Phil
The Haphazard Scientific Finding
As a firm, the team at KdT has decided to publish long-form Bio’s to help the folks we work with learn more about who we are as people. Our hope is that the openness and vulnerability that comes from sharing our stories will help enable our dialogues with all our partners, most importantly, current and future KdT founders. Here goes nothing…
Science is unpredictable. Simple randomness has led to remarkable innovation. Andrew Fire and Craig Mello stumbled upon RNA interference, an extremely powerful biological tool to analyze gene function, in worms, thinking it was experimental error. Most notably, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in a petri dish, left overnight, to advance modern medicine and arguably double our lifespan with the advent of antibiotics. My career path into science and venture was somewhat similar: unpredictable and random; however, it led me to become a multi-tooled biotech founder and well-equipped investor.
Chapter One: Searching for a Roadmap
There was really no roadmap for me to end up in biotech, let alone venture. Partially a product of being raised by a loving, socially outgoing nurse and an introspective electrical engineer, I grew up in an environment that nurtured creativity and curiosity, but lacked the experience to impart guidance for my future. This environment led to two things in my life — 1) a haphazard exploration of science as a field and career and 2) the feeling and need to always hustle and create opportunities for myself.
The game of Basketball taught me how to create opportunities. The personal appeal of basketball is the democratized nature of the game. The individual can practice every element of the game — all you need is a ball and a hoop. As a modest 5’10” player from suburbia without any obvious, innate athletic ability, I needed to create opportunities to be successful. This came in the form of trying out and playing on several traveling AAU teams, quitting tennis to focus on basketball in the summers, and bribing friends to help me get more shots up at the local park. Additionally, I was a student of the game — trading 1-on-1 moves with top players and watching YouTube NBA and college breakdowns to become a better on-court facilitator and point guard. My high school coach always said he only needed, “10 good men” in a high school of 4,000 to be successful. Fortunately, I created enough opportunities to outhustle, outwork, and outthink the 2,000 other guys at my school to be one of the 10 good men.
Unlike basketball, I discovered my affinity for science late into high school. The “classic” science classroom experiments teased my interest. Whether it was setting fire to gummy bears in Chemistry or mapping out organ systems of a fetal pig in Biology, the tinkering, the creativity, and the abstraction caught my attention. Similar to basketball, I wanted to find opportunities to get more exposure, but unlike basketball, I had a tough time finding the right “court” to play on initially.
High school summers were spent exploring this newfound interest in a number of different directions. One summer, I designed molecular biology animations for the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, NJ. In another summer, I engineered QC (Quality Control) protocols in a DNA sequencing and genotyping service laboratory at Rutgers University. This diversity of opportunities validated my general direction towards a life in science, and in college, I chose a path that continued this exploration.
The Foundation Fellows program at the University of Georgia (UGA), the top scholarship program at UGA, provided me the platform for scientific self-discovery. First, UGA as an R01 research university supported cutting-edge discoveries in biofuel engineering, cellular biology, and agricultural genetics. My research at UGA spanned the spectrum — from working with Jan Westpheling on anaerobic extremophiles that digest un-pretreated lignocellulosic biomass (yes, intended to be a mouthful) to studying under Jonathan Eggenschwiler on cellular biology pathways and networks in cancer. Second, the Foundation Fellows provided completely independent funding to craft my own life experiences. One summer, I moved to Munich, Germany to design synthetic tissue-specific promoters for gene therapy at the Ludwig Maximilan University of Munich (LMU). The next summer, I worked at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston to create albumin-based nanoparticles for extracellular matrix-penetrating drug delivery in cancer. My time at UGA confirmed that I wanted to be in application-oriented science with a desire to improve human health, but I was somewhat unclear in what capacity and role.
Chapter Two: Reading the Roadmap
I found my roadmap for science at the University of Cambridge in the M.Phil in Bioscience Enterprise (MBE) program. That year, my student peer group was incredibly diverse and impressive — a neuropathologist, a collection of blue-chip firm consultants, several OxCam graduates, and an industry veteran who had been knighted twice in Malaysia. I consumed everything Cambridge had to offer that year: consulting for several start-ups, working on a project with Lone Pine Capital, a US-based hedge fund, and winning several awards for my own greek-yogurt byproduct purification start-up, including the University’s Life Science Entrepreneur of the Year. The MBE provides the requisite skills for commercializing biotechnology, from intellectual property management, to therapeutic regulatory strategy, to biotech-specific financial modeling, and more. Through this intense course surrounded by extraordinary individuals with varied life experiences and backgrounds, I realized that my life’s work resides at the intersection of science, technology, and commercialization.
Chapter Three: Becoming a Founder
Perhaps the most important viewpoint that I bring to KdT is that I’ve been in our Founders’ shoes.
My haphazard exploration provided a breadth in technical expertise and training to identify the best technology to commercialize, the essential first-step in early-stage innovation. As I started my MD-PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), I read the surrounding literature and knocked on the doors of tech transfer to map out innovation at UNC. Aravind Asokan was applying unique chemistry principles to AAV capsid engineering for gene therapy, and Kevin Weeks was leveraging computation and next-generation sequencing technologies to make RNA structural determination more capitally efficient with higher throughput. Drawing once again on the lessons learned on the basketball court, I hustled and shaped opportunities — convincing both Aravind and Kevin that I could help spin out their technologies into companies, StrideBio and Ribometrix, respectively.
Once these entities formed, I felt the true pressure and responsibility of an entrepreneurial team. Quickly, I learned balance in a start-up was a unique concept, as routine is impossible, but centering yourself daily is essential. I would be running from a cardiology lecture or practice patient encounter to get to a Uniqure, Abbvie, or similar venture pitch that we had that day. Uncertainty became the norm as peers often questioned the purpose of my medical training and likelihood of success of my “start-ups”. I maintained conviction though because my deepening technical expertise in my medical and scientific training confirmed StrideBio and Ribometrix’s core technologies were paradigm shifting. Through repeated discussions with investors and partners, I balanced listening and refining our company’s visions as a strategy lead. Successful financing transitioned our work at these companies from conceptual to execution.
While in the MD-PhD program at UNC-Chapel Hill, I now feel blessed and grateful to say I helped spin out two $50M+ therapeutic companies: one being StrideBio with Aravind Asokan in November 2015 and the other being Ribometrix with Kevin Weeks in April 2016. I led StrideBio’s preclinical strategy efforts to identify top indications for our technology, which led to the $700M+ licensing deal with Takeda for three of those indications in March 2019. Katie Warner, a Ribometrix co-founder, and I led the Abbvie pitches that secured their initial investment and led to one of the strongest strategic syndicates out of North Carolina in a $30M raise including Merck, Abbvie, Amgen, and Illumina in November 2018.
It’s been deeply satisfying and gratifying to read the press clippings of each new deal or new milestone of progress.
Today, I’m now spinning out my third biotech company, using all my training and experience from an early haphazard roadmap, to make another successful therapeutics company seeking to change the paradigm in how we treat patients.
Chapter Four: Becoming KdT
I started out as the haphazard scientist, then became an operator in early-stage biotech, but now I am an investor.
The totality of my training has informed my worldview as an early-stage investor. At KdT, Cain and Mack know who I am — I am the overly optimistic, idealist that sees all the good possible in our portfolio companies. As a haphazard scientist, I see the inner “coolness” in our companies’ technologies and stay close to the subject matter we evaluate daily. As an operator, I can appreciate the day-to-day challenges our portfolio faces, with the belief that persistent effort leads to a company’s growth and success. Cain and Mack embrace my story and empower me to bring the best practices I’ve seen as an operator from VC into our firm as our family of companies and network continues to build.
In basketball, very little truly stops you from finding personal success; all you need is a ball and a hoop. At KdT, our team will give you that ball and that hoop. You just need to show up.