An interview with Professional-in Residence VC Seth Lieblich

Seth Lieblich, PhD, is a principal at venture capital firm 8VC focusing on life sciences technologies. He joins the QB3-Berkeley Professional in Residence program on May 6th. Lieblich spoke to postdoctoral researcher Elisabeth Gill about his trajectory from academic research to the biotech entrepreneurship ecosystem working in a biotech start-up, consulting, within the business development realm of the pharmaceutical industry to his current position in venture capital. Trainees may register for Lieblich’s events here

Elisabeth Gill: Please could you talk me through your career trajectory.

Seth Lieblich is the May Professional in Residence at QB3-Berkeley. Photo courtesy of Seth Lieblich.

Seth Lieblich: I moved out to California for my PhD at Caltech where I worked on computational protein design and protein engineering problems, most of my published work was on insulin. Directly after my PhD—quite literally—I finished on a Friday and the next Monday began working at a start-up called Protomer Technologies. At Protomer Technologies I was one of the key early team members helping to launch the company. I was there around a year, acting as chief operating officer and using the expertise I had gained from my PhD. After my departure, that company was acquired by Eli Lilly in a billion-dollar deal.

Next, I joined ZS Associates in a consulting capacity and there I worked with pharma and biotech companies from large to small, guiding them on their marketing and sales as well as providing other strategic guidance in order  to advance and build company portfolios. After that, I went to Amgen and worked on search and evaluation, transactions, and alliance management for platform technology companies as well as academics. For example, I was the deal lead on the Amgen and Plexium collaboration that was just recently publicly announced. Following that I joined 8VC as a principal focused on life sciences, which encompasses platform technologies, therapeutics, infrastructure and tools companies and diagnostics. I get the pleasure of working with some of the newest technologies and brilliant founders and entrepreneurs which is tremendously rewarding.

EG: What are some of the most valuable lessons or highlights from each step in your journey?

SL: At Protomer I learned how start-ups and their founders think; it’s very hard to get this perspective from anywhere else other than from being in that position. My time at ZS Associates gave me comprehensive insight into strategies for commercialization. Some of the learning highlights from my time at Amgen include:   how to do deals, understanding how large companies operate and think, and how to navigate decision-making and within large pharma organizations. Now at 8VC I am using all these experiences to support and invest in founders as well as build new companies from the ground up.

EG: At what stage did you start to consider a career in VC?

SL: For me, it wasn’t a calculated long-term plan, but more a matter of taking hold of the opportunities that presented themselves.   In general, I would advise against specifically aiming to work in venture. It is a ‘cottage industry’ in that most firms are only around 10-20 people with the absolute largest firms coming in around 300-400 people. VC firms have high variance in their strategy and how they operate. The turnover of people tends to be low so if you’re targeting a specific place, you might be waiting for a long time for an opening and even then, it might not be the right cultural fit. From my experience I chose a path that had plenty of scope, I followed the work that I was enjoying and kept doing the things I was having fun doing.

EG: What attracted you to working at 8VC?

SL: It’s a very special culture at 8VC; there is great incentivization not to compete with one another, to arrive at decisions by consensus and not to fight over doing deals or receiving the  credit. Everyone’s very smart and comes from a diverse variety of scientific backgrounds, be that in biology, enterprise SaaS, and other technical backgrounds. I had had some positive interactions with 8VC earlier in my career but one acid test to figure out what a VC firm is really like to work with is to talk with any start-up that has worked with the firm and has not been successful. It’s a good gauge if they have positive things to say about the firm and indicate that they had fun together, even if it was not an ultimately successful venture.

EG: What are some of the patterns in the backgrounds of your colleagues?

SL: Intentionally there aren’t many patterns. Everyone’s extremely diverse in terms of the technical backgrounds they bring to their work, although the one unifying theme is that most people have been involved in a start-up at some point or participated in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Founders come in all forms, with all sorts of life experiences so it’s important to have VCs that reflect that diversity since it’s our job to support and build the community. Since 8VC mostly invests in technology-based companies, a large majority of the firm have a background in sciences with a third of us coming from life sciences. Nearly all our investors have a prior background as a founder or entrepreneur since it’s critical to bring that in-the-trenches experience to both investing and building new companies.

EG: What ways have you grown in this role and what ways are you excited to keep growing?

SL: Understanding the dynamics of how boards operate and what they need to succeed. Life as an innovator is always going to be hard and I’m excited to keep learning the craft of how best to support them.

EG: What does a typical day working as a VC look like?

There is no typical day. If you sit on a board, there are quarterly meetings and ad hoc duties. There is also lots of going out and seeking out new innovators and talent. As a VC you often get to know about jobs in start-ups before they are made public, so I seek to connect people and companies beyond my own portfolio to serve the community. To an alien looking over my shoulder it would look like my days consist of meetings, emails, and literature research; from that perspective it’s perhaps a rather strange existence, spent mainly sitting at a computer but to me it feels varied.

EG: What are some of the most challenging parts of your job? Is saying ‘no’ to people hard?

SL: Nobody likes to hear no, but I always make it my goal to give constructive feedback, useful advice, or other connections. Just the other day I reached out to somebody I said ‘no’ to a few months ago as I thought of another company who could be helpful to them even though I am not the right person to help them now. I really see our job as building the community in whatever way it requires. That’s not the most challenging part for me. The most challenging aspect is probably keeping up to date with the volumes of new science coming out! Most aspects of biology have had some major upheaval in the past 10-12 years such as small molecules, gene editing or stem cell technologies. Circa 1905 there were major breakthroughs for physics; 2010-2011 seems to have been a breakthrough year for biotech. Around then there were big breakthroughs in machine learning, CRISPR, and cell therapies. We’re seeing the ripple effects from these discoveries– hyper charge science today. Before, gene editing was a long, complicated, and limited process that would take months to do. Now there are companies that exist that you can order CRISPR editing kits from, or you can directly order edited cell lines, such as Synthego. Looking to the parallels of how physics discoveries in 1905 led to huge innovation decades later, we’re likely to see some continued waves of innovation from biotech in the next few decades.

LG: Do you have any advice for academic trainees interested in working in biotech or VC?

SL: Pursue something you find fun and aligns with your values. In my opinion titles are overrated; rather than follow money, chase after the impact on the world you would like to see. There are more resources out there than ever to explore different career options and unknowns. Take advantage of serendipity and venture out into the unknown, and beyond that you’ll find further unknowns you could never have conceived. Where possible try your hand at different career      experiences. For example, if you’re interested in consulting, try to find a way of experiencing that as an internship or short-term project for a couple of weeks, or whatever career option it is that you’re considering. Based on these experiences, converge on what you enjoy—life is too valuable not to do things you enjoy and find inspiring.

Seth Lieblich earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in biochemistry from Brandeis University and completed his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at California Institute of Technology in 2017. After his PhD he joined protein engineering start-up Protomer Technologies as one of the first hires as the company launched. He then moved to ZS Associates, leading teams engaging in biotech market research and commercialization strategies. Following this he joined Amgen Business Development on their technology team. In this role he performed search and evaluation of platform technologies across broad therapeutic areas, and was responsible for negotiating transactions, including managing strategic academic partnerships. Just over a year ago Seth joined as a Principal at 8VC, where he uses his experience working in biotech from all these different perspectives to support founders and build great companies.

Elisabeth Gill is a postdoctoral researcher in Kevin Healy’s lab in QB3, her research focuses on stem cell derived vasculature and how fluidic shear stress and tissue specificity affect vascular function in disease modelling and drug screening applications. She is passionate about science communication and bio-entrepreneurship, participating in the 2021 QB3-Berkeley’s Science Writing for the Public workshop and was selected as one of the inaugural LSEC Nucleate Bio fellows.