Kristina Burow, Arch’s Rising Star in SF, Spots Big Ideas in Biotech, Cleantech

7/16/10Follow @xconomy

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the Novartis Bioventure Fund, which truly brought her inside the VC club. She got to know more and more VCs, including the ones from Arch Venture Partners, when she worked on an investment in Santa Clara, CA-based Xenoport.

But if Burow was going to launch a career in venture capital, she figured she needed to go to business school. A few of the key managing directors at Arch—Robert Nelsen, Scott Minick, and Keith Crandell—urged her to look at the University of Chicago, where Arch was founded in 1986. She ended up taking them up on the suggestion, and working for Arch’s Chicago office when she wasn’t in class or studying.

Two years later, with her MBA in hand, Burow got a plum offer. In May 2004, she was offered a full-time job with Arch to move to San Francisco and open an office. She jumped at the chance, happy to get back to the Bay Area where she’d spent her undergraduate days.

Her job from the start was to be Arch’s eyes and ears in the Bay Area. Find the best technologies and most promising entrepreneurs at UCSF, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and every other institution she could dig up something cool. She identified rising faculty stars, and cultivated relationships.

Besides being young, and being a woman, Burow is clearly different from a lot of VCs because of her chemistry background. Lots of biotech VCs have MDs or PhDs in the biology side, but not so many in chemistry. That technical expertise, combined with a philosophy of thinking big that she picked up from Sharpless, Schultz, and Arch partners, has enabled her to pull off a rare balancing act in venture capital, Nelsen says.

“She has vision, and she’s smart enough to get into the details,” Nelsen says. “There are a lot of people who have the technical capability, and there are people who write early stage checks, but not many can do both.”

This ability to think big, and dive deep into the technical side, was part of what Burow brought to the group of co-founders who started Sapphire Energy. That company was not born through a license to an existing technology, but was drawn up from scratch based on the technologies needed to make algae biofuel competitive with crude oil on price.

Still, Sapphire and every other biofuel company out there still has a lot to prove. But Burow has been involved in a lot more of the companies in the Arch portfolio, in a variety of different niches within biotech. The list includes Cambridge, MA-based Ensemble Therapeutics, South San Francisco-based Achaogen, Calabasas, CA-based Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, and Clinton, NJ-based Ikaria (which has filed paperwork to go public).

Before any of those companies generated a massive IPO or acquisition, Arch decided to promote Burow to partner in December 2008. By that point, Nelsen says, the evidence was there that Burow had what it takes, regardless of whether she had a home run on her record. “It’s not about having one big event, like at some places where it’s easy to get lucky and get promoted,” Nelsen says. “For us, it’s about whether you can consistently find interesting deals and work them hard. To get where Kristina is, you have to show strength on a multiple number of deals.”

She’s definitely serious about what she does. When I asked about how she spends her spare time, she offered a pretty short answer. Burow said she goes swimming at the Rutter Center at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, and occasionally surfs when she’s in San Diego. She travels “lots of cool places,” for her job with Arch. She and her husband love their place in the Liberty Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, near Mission Dolores. She has no kids.

If there was one theme that kept coming up over and over in our conversation, it was building. Burow loved being a part of building GNF. She built a Rolodex of top scientific entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. She’s built a portfolio of companies that, if they pay off, won’t represent incremental advances. And she pointed to a stack of scientific journals she’s reading, where she’s building her knowledge so she can be ready to pounce on the next big opportunity.

“I like to build things. The building is exciting, and thinking big,” she says.

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