Carmichael Roberts says he has avoided taking the traditional path during his career as a scientist and entrepreneur. And he’s now taking a path that will lead North Bridge Venture Partners from its traditional emphasis on IT to a larger mix of investments based on breakthroughs in chemistry and materials science. He even let me in on a stealthy new startup he’s recently launched to commercialize stretchable silicon for multiple industries such as electronics.
Roberts, a 40-year-old general partner at North Bridge, was brought to the Waltham, MA, firm in fall 2007 largely because he has scientific expertise that none of the other partners have. He’s the only person at the firm with a Ph.D. (it’s in organic chemistry), and the only one that focuses exclusively on investments in chemistry and materials science. He says he likes it that way, as opposed to being one of several Ph.Ds at a venture firm. (Examples of the latter would include Polaris Venture Partners and Flagship Ventures.)
“As an entrepreneur, what you do is pick areas where there’s a big void and there’s an opportunity,” Roberts says. “And, by definition, if you dare to step into that area there will be a little competition—but for the most part there are few incumbents.”
By focusing on chemistry and materials science, Roberts expects to make investments across several industries, including life sciences, energy, and electronics. This is familiar territory for him. I recently spoke with him just before he gave a talk at a clean technology meeting at Harvard Business School, and he wore his biotech hat last September at Xconomy’s life sciences forum in Cambridge, MA. As was noted at the forum, Roberts is chairman of nonprofit Diagnostics For All, which is developing paper-based diagnostics to provide low-cost options to patients in developing countries. He is also chairman of North Bridge portfolio companies Arsenal Biomedical (formerly WMR Biomedical), a stealthy medical devices firm based in Watertown, MA, and 1366 Technologies, a North Lexington, MA, firm with technology to produce low-cost silicon solar cells.
Less than two years into his job at North Bridge, Roberts (an Xconomist) is already steering the firm towards investments in more science-driven companies. He says he’s begun a startup in Waltham, tentatively dubbed MC10, to commercialize advanced materials such as what Roberts calls stretchable silicon—which could be used for bendable medical implants and electronics—licensed from the lab of chemistry and material science professor John Rogers, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rogers has already shown that the material could be used to construct an artificial retina, but Roberts hasn’t provided details on which specific uses of the technology his startup will pursue. (Roberts and Rogers were both postdoctoral researchers in the lab of well-known Harvard chemistry professor George Whitesides in the 1990s.)
North Bridge, founded in 1994, is also in a cozy financial position compared with many venture outfits that are searching far and wide to raise money. Roberts says that his firm closed a $500 million venture fund last summer, before the financial meltdown later in the year delivered severe blows to many of the pension funds, endowments, and other entities that provide capital to venture firms. The new fund should also put Roberts in a strong position to actively invest in early-stage opportunities while his counterparts at many other firms rein in their bets.
There’s no doubt that Roberts has connections that give him an inside track on emerging breakthroughs at Harvard and MIT. He has already teamed up with Whitesides, his postdoctoral advisor, to co-found several ventures—including diabetes and obesity drug developer Surface Logix, Arsenal Biomedical, nanomaterials developer Nano-Terra, and Diagnostics For All. (Roberts regards Whitesides as a close friend, and his daughter even served as a flower girl in the wedding of Whitesides’s son, he says.)
Bob Langer, a prolific biomaterials inventor at MIT who has worked closely with Roberts as a fellow co-founder of Arsenal Biomedical, wrote in an e-mail that Roberts is an effective startup founder and is likely to succeed as a venture capitalist because “… he is very smart, great with people, and has a super entrepreneurial spirit. ”
Roberts also racked up scientific achievements of his own before he became an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He was a National Science Foundation fellow during his postdoctoral years at Harvard, after earning his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. at Duke University. He left Harvard in 1995 to join the R&D team in the specialty materials unit of Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW)), where his group developed polymer technology used in the extended release version of Pfizer heart drug nifedipine (Procardia).
Roberts went to Union Carbide because he felt he could fill a void there, just like he sees himself fitting in at North Bridge. “If I had gone to Bristol-Myers or Merck [rather than Union Carbide],” he says, “I think they would have had hundreds of people like me.”
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