Life Science Version of "Cosi Fan Tutte" Plays in Napa, CA

Theral Timpson

Recently I met Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick, co-founder of TVG or Tech Vision Group. Robert is an industry thought leader who’s been around the life sciences for a long time and produces global life science events. Robert sees himself as a biotech gadfly, or one who shakes things up. I might call him an impresario, one who produces high level events with flair and taste. Robert has made sure that I don’t refer to his meetings as conferences. What then should we call them?

Susan and Steve

Panelists left to right Oleg Nodelman, Susan Molineaux, and Steve Engle

Last week we attended TVG’s C21 BioVentures, a meeting to connect life science investors and entrepreneurs held each year in Napa, CA. Robert is entertaining and he goes for something that stands out above the normal run-of-the-mill show. The C21 is sponsored in part by the law firms DLA Piper and Latham & Watkins, and the Deloitte Recap consulting firm. The get together attracts many of the life science venture folks. Included were two sessions for start-ups to present their case to these investors. There were no keynote talks or single lectures, but rather one interactive panel after the other. And some of them were downright entertaining. If we push the metaphor a bit further, and say that the impresario, Dr. Kilpatrick, had produced an opera, this is my quick review.

Our interview with Dr. Kilpatrick at this year's annual C21 BioVentures

Set in the beautiful Meritage Resort just south of downtown Napa, and surrounded by vineyards sporting a vibrant spring green, the production really could be called a tragi-comedy. These are tough times for life science VC. Still, this is not a crowd to get depressed. The industry is more capital constrained than it's been in many years--maybe since its early days.

After a stimulating overture of wine tasting in the Meritage wine cave to buoy the spirits of the audience and singers, the opera’s opening song was sung by Dr. Kilpatrick himself, “We don’t make the waves, we ride them.” A quartet of pharma ventures followed. Highlights from their scene included “Your baby isn’t ugly, there’s just too many around,” sung beautifully and to applause by Dr. Steven Kuemmerle of Abbott Biotech Ventures and “We’re gonna walk before we run,” sung by Dr. Sam Wu of MedImmune Ventures.

A reproduction of the Dave Letterman Show played next with the “Top Ten Ways You Know You’re Not Connecting with that VC in Front of You” led by Mr. Brian Atwood of Versant Ventures playing “Dave.” Each of the ten reasons turned into trios for three of the leading VCs in the industry: “Contact in pharma said they’re not shopping,” “You believed the FDA in your pre-IND?” and “Bruce Booth just tweeted a no go.” They were decently delivered. Brian turned out to be a convincing “Dave” with an impeccable sense of timing and a nice flick to the wrist as he tossed each of the 10 cards to the back of the stage. Dr. Kilpatrick made a surprise appearance as band leader Paul Shaffer.

Here the opera took a tragic turn as the death of 50 or so VCs in the last few years was lamented and more deaths predicted. Indeed, when listening to “We haven’t reached the bottom yet,” there were audible sighs in the crowd. Currently there are about 50 life science VCs left, but it’s anticipated that in 5 years only 15 will remain standing. A lesson for the future was included in this lament in the form of two arias, the first by Dr. David Kabakoff of Sofinnova entitled “When you get feedback from the FDA, you better damn well listen,” and the second sung in fresh originality by Dr. Srini Akkraju of New Leaf, “There’s no reason for turning away from something good for the patient.” The panel finished off with a bit of nostalgia in a look back to the 90’s when almost every start-up was chosen for funding. Today, as we know, the opposite is true.

But as I say, this wasn’t a full on tragedy. The suggestions given for the future took me back to Cosi Fan Tutte, Mozart’s comic opera where two lovers claim that there loves are faithful forever only to be proven in a delightful plot that they are wrong. “Trust up-front is key for the VC,” “Why not consider a ‘no-exit’ model,” and “Big D (dilution) before big B (bankruptcy)” were sung to great enthusiasm. Cosi Fan Tutte is often translated as “they are all like that.” We could be talking about the VCs here in that way, none of whom took themselves too seriously. The final aria brought the house down, “Don’t listen too much to VC’s doom and gloom.”

If one was too overcome with grief, or just plain bored, wine receptions surrounded the opera. In addition to the first night’s wine tasting, each of the two days were followed with networking sessions with the finest libation, the first of which was held at the impressive Chateau Domaine Carneros. Standing on the porch of this grand house, a glass of dry Champaign or an elegant pinot noir in hand, looking out over the vineyards in the twilight, we all toasted to each other.

A flight of whites to the present plight, a flight of reds to our future meds.


TVG co-founder, Dr. Birgit Weskamp

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