After 17 years at Amgen, head of R&D Sean Harper, M.D., was ready to get closer to the science. He reunited with his former colleague from Merck and Amgen, Beth Seidenberg, M.D., in Los Angeles and set up Westlake Village BioPartners with a $320 million fund.
Of course, that pivot didn’t happen overnight.
“It’s not I woke up one day and said, ‘Gee, I’d like to be an investor,’” Harper told FierceBiotech at this year’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.
When Seidenberg departed Amgen 15 years ago to lead life science investments at Kleiner Perkins, Harper was watching. He wasn’t ready to make the switch yet—“I really wanted to do the head of R&D-type job first,” he said—but thought it could be a potential next move further down the road.
“At that point, it was 2005. There was no other R&D person in venture, just full stop,” Seidenberg said. “I remember when Brook [Byers] hired me—he was getting some big-time kudos for recruiting somebody with an R&D background into doing biotech investing.”
By “R&D background,” Seidenberg and Harper mean decades of experience doing “hardcore” drug discovery and development. The duo, along with Desmond Padhi, an associate partner at Westlake and another Amgen veteran, all have 25 to 30 years’ worth of such experience.
“That phenotype is very rare in venture,” Harper said.
Seidenberg ultimately left Kleiner Perkins because she felt her ability to invest in biotech startups was limited. The firm has diversified funds that back companies across industries from consumer enterprise and security to technology and biotech. Her desire to “do more” coincided with Harper’s realization that, as head of R&D, he was spending more time in “administrative, corporate-level meetings” than he was in laboratories with scientists.
And it wasn’t just the bureaucracy for which Big Pharma is infamous that pushed Harper to leave. He also noticed over the years that “the vast preponderance of really interesting cutting-edge new science is being commercialized into these venture-backed companies.”
“Look at gene therapy or cell-based therapies: not a single company of the large biopharma companies that did that work themselves,” he said.
A Big Pharma’s board may not give its R&D chief the cash to build a gene therapy facility, Harper said. But they would absolutely approve a much larger sum to purchase a small biotech working on gene therapy.
“We pay operating expenses for that company going forward, even though they wouldn’t give you the money to build that capability in the first place,” he said. “All companies operate like this, so industry becomes addicted to purchasing innovation. I just want to be where the most interesting science is happening.
“Things fell in place at the right time in both our careers and we decided to come together again,” Seidenberg said.
The duo set up shop in the Los Angeles area because they wanted to catalyze the life sciences ecosystem there.
“The technology [we back] can come from anywhere … But we both saw there was a real vacuum in one main piece that’s needed to get companies started and off the ground,” Seidenberg said. “That is an experienced venture capitalist and a VC firm. All the other elements were in place … There is an enormous amount of NIH funding and cutting-edge research going on.”
People often ask Harper what it’s like to be an investor. His answer is, aside from budgets, it’s not that different.
“I was spending $4 billion a year in my previous job, investing a lot of it. I spent like $50 billion with what I was doing before,” he said. “Now I’m investing $15 million to $20 million to start a company. I’m just doing what I do: finding science and people to work on the science and giving the funding needed to do the work.”