Kristina Burow came to UC Berkeley as a teenager from Minnesota with a vague idea about what she wanted in life, other than to become a champion collegiate swimmer.
She ended up finding her purpose in both chemistry and business. Operating at the nexus of those two fields, at just 36, Burow has assembled a portfolio of venture-backed biotech and cleantech startups over the past five years with potential to shake up more than one industry.
Burow, a partner with Arch Venture Partners at its office in San Francisco’s Mission Bay district, was one of the key people I had to meet before we launched Xconomy San Francisco last month. Her fingerprints are all over some of the most innovative “big idea” startups that we’ve been covering for the past two years all over the country. The group includes Sapphire Energy, the San Diego-based developer of algae biofuels; Cambridge, MA-based Lycera, the developer of oral pills for autoimmune diseases; and San Diego-based Receptos, a company offering new high-res images of hard drug targets. Her latest big idea, featured recently in the New York Times, is new San Francisco startup Siluria Technologies, which is seeking to convert natural gas into the world’s most common chemical commodity used in plastics.
None of these companies, or a number of others that Burow has been involved with since she joined Arch in 2004, has fulfilled their billion-dollar potential just yet. But they all show a willingness to get in early on big ideas, and they all still have big potential.
“I expect great things from Kristina. I expect her to create a lot of billion-dollar companies,” says Robert Nelsen, a managing director with Arch Venture Partners in Seattle. “I see her being one of the people running Arch in the future.”
Carl Weissman, a managing director with OVP Venture Partners in Kirkland, WA, who managed Burow briefly when she was an intern at Accelerator in Seattle, has been watching her progress ever since. “Her career has been on a rocket path,” Weissman says. “She is driven and focused.” Camille Samuels of Versant Ventures adds: “Kristina is often ‘there’ months before other VCs see the opportunity.”
So who is Kristina Burow, and how did she get on this fast track?
Her story begins in Minneapolis, where she grew up. Her father was an architect, and her mother a registered nurse. Kristina and her younger sister attended public schools. Kristina was a high-achiever, an A-student and top-ranked swimmer who attracted scholarship offers from a number of Division-1 colleges, including UC Berkeley.
She fell for Berkeley, for its combination of a great swimming program, and a wide variety of great programs to choose from. As a high schooler, she had toyed with the idea of studying geology, but wasn’t really sure what to major in.
When she first arrived at Berkeley in the early 1990s, it was a bit overwhelming. “I got to Berkeley and realized, my lab partner was from Andover. It was pretty clear that even though I was an A student in high school, I was underprepared,” Burow says. “You learn to catch up.”
Second semester of freshman year, she fell in love. With organic chemistry. Something about the structures of chemistry seemed similar to architecture in some ways, but this was a better fit for Burow. “It was like a love affair. I don’t know how else to explain it. I had the text for the class, plus two other textbooks I’d do all the problems from,” she says.
But like most love affairs, it didn’t really last forever. She did go on to get her bachelor’s in chemistry from Berkeley, and a master’s in chemistry from Columbia University. She scored a big coup, landing in a Ph.D chemistry program at The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, working for a future Nobel Laureate in K. Barry Sharpless, a pioneer of “click chemistry.” Six years went by, and she had her name on a couple of important scientific publications. But as her 20s went on, Burow realized she didn’t want to become a professor, didn’t want to run an academic lab, didn’t want to become an ultra-narrow specialist in an obscure corner of the chemistry world. “I was interested in big picture, how everything fits together,” she says. “I just didn’t want to spend my 20s doing that. I wanted something bigger and more exciting.”
The problem was, how to pursue that? The pharmaceutical industry didn’t seem like the place either.
Then, she had some good fortune—call it being in the right place at the right time. Peter Schultz, the prominent chemist at Scripps, was busy lining up what looked like a dream scientific operation at the time, the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF). There would be huge budgets, access to some of the top minds in Big Pharma, combined with academic freedom. Burow, then in her 20s and a couple years away from getting her PhD in chemistry, decided to drop her academic career to become employee No. 15 at GNF in the heady days of 1999.
“The GNF opportunity was once in a lifetime thing,” Burow says. “There aren’t many opportunities when you get to work with Peter Schultz at a brand new institute that is heavily funded by a major Swiss pharam company. I knew Pete, and I knew that if you were talented and worked hard, he’d give you the reins. And he did.”
The GNF experience was “amazing,” Burow says. The institute grew from 15 employees to 400. Still in her 20s, Burow was one of three people given responsibility for most of the chemistry programs there, she says. Burow was involved in the spinoff of a couple of venture-backed companies, Kalypsys and Phenomix. The experience taught her an important lesson: she likes to get things off the ground, but managing things on autopilot once they’re flying wasn’t her thing.
So after GNF’s heady early days, it was time to move on. Burow got to meet venture capitalists through the GNF experience. She met people who helped her get in the door at 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.