Gates Foundation Lures Biotech VC to Work on Global Health Startups

8/13/13Follow @xconomy

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has people with big Rolodexes that extend into high levels of government, philanthropy, public health, and Big Pharma. Now the organization has hired someone to open doors to biotech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

Bob More, a former partner with Frazier Healthcare Ventures and Domain Associates, recently joined the Gates Foundation as a senior advisor for venture investing. The job, More said in a note this week to friends and colleagues, will involve “developing and executing a venture-capital initiative to support the goals of the Foundation, focused primarily on diseases that affect the poorest people in the world.” He’ll report to Julie Sunderland, the foundation’s director of program-related investments, and work with Trevor Mundel, the head of global health and a former executive at Novartis.

The Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy with about $36 billion in assets, has spent years thinking of ways to get the maximum bang for its buck in global health. Some of its money goes to research scientists in the form of grants to support specific projects, like new vaccines, drugs, or diagnostics that have potential against diseases that have traditionally been neglected by for-profit companies. It also sets aside some cash for “off the wall” ideas in academia that are a little too unorthodox for conservative government agencies to back.

Bob More of Frazier Healthcare Ventures

Bob More

It’s obviously tricky for a nonprofit devoted to a higher goal than pure financial returns to get into business with companies that are devoted to financial returns. But in the last couple years the foundation has sought to harness entrepreneurial spirit by making equity investments in startups with technologies that could have broad benefits for global health, such as Research Triangle, NC-based Liquidia Technologies, Cambridge, MA-based Genocea Biosciences, Cambridge, MA-based Visterra, and San Carlos, CA-based Atreca.

Bryan Roberts, a partner with Venrock who focuses on healthcare investing, said More is the kind of person who can find the places where nonprofit and for-profit organizations can row in the same direction.

“Bob is a terrific, respected and experienced partner to entrepreneurs, management teams and VCs. So much of success is based on trust and relationships—and Bob has both of these,” Roberts said. “I think that Gates’s hiring of Bob shows a desire to collaborate with the biotech industry in areas that coincide with the Foundation’s goals. Bob’s presence should be a huge help to that effort and in those areas of overlap, I believe the power that Bob’s new organization brings could be substantial.”

Jennifer Dent, the president of BIO Ventures for Global Health, a nonprofit that seeks to connect biotech companies with global health opportunities, said she’s excited about More joining the foundation.

“I think this is fantastic news for the Foundation and for global health in general. I expect Bob will bring a very business-like, disciplined approach to identifying and negotiating investments for the Foundation,” Dent says. “With his experience as a VC at two highly regarded firms—Domain and Frazier—he will have an excellent grasp of market dynamics and deal making shifts as well as how to present global health opportunities in a new and compelling way.”

More, 46, said he’s spending his early days on the job learning his way around the foundation (trying to get his contacts switched from his old Macintosh to a PC system was no small task, he says). He isn’t yet ready to say exactly how Gates Foundation assets will be put to work in companies, or how much it plans to invest.

Here’s what More said in his note to friends and colleagues in the biotech industry about his new role at the Gates Foundation:

“I have joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work in support of their mission of Global Health.

The mission is one I admire a great deal, as are the deep commitment and passion of the people here to address very important issues.

My role will be focused on developing and executing a venture-capital initiative to support the goals of the Foundation, focused primarily on diseases that affect the poorest people in the world. I’ll also be looking at other strategic areas such as maternal and child health, nutrition and agriculture. I am a firm believer in people and incentives. Using venture capital as a tool to support entrepreneurs in their mission to address challenges in science and healthcare is a small part of what the Foundation does, but I am hopeful that it can make a big difference.

Just as the Foundation has worked with non-profit partners in the past, we want to work with partners in the venture-capital community, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, researchers and entrepreneurs trying to build businesses.

We want to encourage and support entrepreneurs to pursue ideas that will solve these problems. And we want our partners to flourish as businesses.

Entrepreneurs create markets where none existed before. The challenge we face is the ability of many people to pay for products and services. But that is often a challenge for which we are willing to bear responsibility for finding solutions. We will get involved only in ideas that serve our mission. But for those ideas, we will be tenacious.

Making this work is important. Being creative about ways to make it work for our partners and for the entrepreneurs we support is our responsibility.

I will reach out to many of you in the coming months to find ways we may work together.

I am here because I think we can make a difference. And I am here because I believe that entrepreneurs can solve these challenges. My task, simply, is to focus the efforts of great entrepreneurs to achieve these goals. If we can be a part of doing that, we will have succeeded.”

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