Ameena El-Bibany of ARTIS Ventures: 5 Things I Need To See Before Making A VC Investment

What is the problem, and how big is the market? Beyond looking at market numbers, it’s important for a startup to deeply understand the problem they are solving. Some teams we see building interesting technology and then searching for a problem to solve, while others we see spending the time to deeply characterize a problem before building the right tech solution. I encourage entrepreneurs not to try to fit a square peg in a round hole. In other words, identify the problem first. Determine the key issues and current bottlenecks in the space, then set out to build the differentiated solution that outcompetes others.

Aspart of our series about “5 Things I Need To See Before Making A VC Investment” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ameena El-Bibany

Ameena El-Bibany is a partner at ARTIS Ventures and currently sits on the Board of Activ Surgical. Prior to joining, she spent five years in early-stage venture capital as a partner at Rising Tide VC, where she built and led the firm’s health and bio investment practice, investing in companies including Precision NanoSystems (acquired by Danaher), Apama Medical (acquired by Boston Scientific), Loop Genomics (acquired by Element Biosciences), Evonetix, Exo Imaging, Aspect Biosystems, Atia Vision and others. Focusing on the intersection of science and technology, she has invested in, and worked with, companies spanning personalized medicine, synthetic biology, computational biology, and more. She is passionate about bridging academia and industry to create lasting impact. Ameena began her career in R&D, working at Novozymes, a world leader in bio innovation, to develop procedures for maximizing yield through industrial scale-up. She is a recipient of multiple competitive grants funded by the National Science Foundation for research done at the California Academy of Sciences and the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, as well as an awardee of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

She has conducted research across DNA damage and repair in longevity, microbiome diversity, and stem cell induction and stabilization. Ameena holds a BS in Genetics from the University of California, Davis.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please share with us the “backstory” behind what brought you to this specific career path?

From a young age I was interested in science, and genetics became another lens to understand people, what makes us similar, what makes us unique. I pursued this curiosity throughout academia, taking as many biology classes as I could. From there, I spent time doing research in different areas, from stem cell development to microbiome research to DNA damage and repair mechanisms. I also spent time in industry at Novozymes working on developing new industrial scale-up procedures. In other words, how you scale products and processes to commercial levels.

My plan was to pursue a PhD, but before applying to any programs I was given the opportunity to be immersed in the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem as part of a VC firm that wanted to begin exploring healthcare investments as a sector. I forwent graduate school and spent the next five years at Rising Tide VC building the health and bio practice, investing across computational biology, synthetic biology, and precision medicine. I scaled it to become about one third of the firm’s investments over those years, mostly focusing on TechBio companies (though, at the time no one was calling it TechBio, that’s a term an ARTIS Ventures colleague coined, but it perfectly describes the intersection of technology and biotech where so many innovative companies are playing). I began collaborating and co-investing with ARTIS on early-stage deals and subsequently joined the team in 2019. I love the pace and challenges of venture capital. Things can move much more slowly in academia and being in early-stage venture perfectly marries meaningful impact on faster timescales and getting to work with brilliant scientists developing novel technologies.

My heart and mind are forever enamored with life sciences, it is what I like to spend my time learning about and working with ARTIS gives me the opportunity to aid in the commercialization of forward-thinking science. We also play a hand in ensuring these new technologies are creating real impact for patients, which drives a sense of motivation and gratification that is hard to rival.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages by Carlota Perez. The book presents five main tech revolutions from the late 1700s to the early 2000s — the industrial revolution; the age of steam and railways; the age of steel, electricity, and heavy engineering; the age of oil, automobiles, and mass production; and the age of information and telecommunications. Each one had an unprecedented impact on the state of technology at its time, massively transforming markets in unforeseen ways.

I believe we are now at the precipice of the sixth age: the age of TechBio, which is the convergence of these first five revolutions, now seen as established technology (IT, semiconductor, cloud infrastructure and computing, etc.) with biology and life sciences. The TechBio revolution has the potential to lead to advancements in nearly every sector, from health and medicine to improved industrial processing to sustainable manufacturing and more. This book resonated because it helped to illuminate the macro-level view of this stage as the next era of advancement, and now as investors we have the opportunity to play a role in shaping this next technological inflection point.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

What you put into the world comes back to you. About a year ago I connected with a bright, young entrepreneur who was thinking about RNA therapeutics and what new ideas were out there. Beyond having a thoughtful discussion and brainstorming what the world of drug development could look like in the future, we connected on shared values and excitement in helping to shape that future. Some time later, he reached back out to introduce me to his two co-founders, both world-renowned experts in RNA and neural networks, who were building novel tech for RNA therapeutics and vaccines. We invested in the company (currently in stealth). The lesson I try to live by is that opportunities come when you invest in the people and the ecosystem around you and focus on adding value in every interaction.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership can be viewed from a few different dimensions. In one sense, it is someone who is willing to step out of the comfort zone of what’s been done before. Someone who has the courage and resilience to jump into a realm that doesn’t have any predefined paths and write their own story there.

In another sense, leadership is also about guiding the people that are aligned in helping achieve that dream. No leader achieves anything alone, so the value of people and relationships, and investing in the next generation of up-and-coming leaders is crucial in creating a sustainable legacy and impact.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Through my current work at ARTIS is a significant way. We invest in technologies and science that bear early-stage risk and often have lower chances of commercialization without private funding sources that help push the boundaries of innovation. One example of this is investing in nascent markets, where there are massive opportunities to win large market share for the companies that help grow and establish the market themselves. An example here, and one I’ve actively invested in, is DNA synthesis. We have come a long way with the cost of genome sequencing, but to reliably synthesize DNA quickly and at-scale, technical bottlenecks still exist. The companies that tackle and win these challenges will seize the potential to not only win their market but downstream markets as well, such as gene therapies, DNA data storage, genome writing to engineer microbes with novel functions, and more.

Another effort toward goodness is within the venture capital industry itself, which is very much a mentorship business. The most experienced investors benefit from decades of pattern matching, but even at earlier stages in career growth it’s important to mentor the next generation looking to break into the industry and succeed.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share a few things that need to be done on a broader societal level to expand VC opportunities for women, minorities, and people of color?

We need to create more experiences that increase access and exposure to STEM fields from earlier ages, while also ensuring those experiences are positive. When I was 12, I had a life sciences teacher that made me fall in love with genetics, so much so that it steered the direction of my life and career, and here I am a couple of decades later still devoting my efforts to it. Creating more of these experiences at younger ages will expose girls, minorities, and people of color to pathways they otherwise may not have pursued.

We also have a responsibility within our industry. As I mentioned, VC is a mentorship business, and we have a responsibility to ensure we are opening access and resources to diverse types of people that are going to bring interesting and new perspectives. We are seeing more diversity in founders than ever before who are building companies to serve new market segments, and the investor side of the table needs to reflect that as well.

Can you share a story with us about your most successful Angel or VC investment? What was its lesson?

Democratization of access to traditionally expensive healthcare is powerful, and one focus of my career, which is why Exo Imaging is one investment I am excited about. Founded by an all-star team of entrepreneurs and technologists, Exo Imaging took decades of semiconductor experience and applied it to the world of ultrasound, creating a handheld device to increase access to ultrasound across the world without sacrificing on clinical-quality imaging.

If we have learned nothing else from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that healthcare is a truly global issue. Access to care, particularly in emerging markets, is crucial to maintaining health and wellness on a global level; this effort is a passion and seeing it come to fruition is a personal marker for success.

Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding failure of yours? What was its lesson?

A lesson I’ve learned, especially when it comes to life sciences, is the difference between research and technology. Research can help fuel knowledge but can also be several years away from commercialization potential, and thus less appropriate for venture funding. Grants are a great resource to further this stage of work. Technology, on the other hand, is systemic and built upon research that is robust, repeatable, and proven to function toward a specific process or use case. It’s imperative to assess when a company has turned the corner from research to robust technology.

Can you share a story with us about a problem that one of your portfolio companies encountered and how you helped to correct the problem? We’d love to hear the details and what its lesson was.

We had a portfolio company in the process of manufacturing their product. There was a delay on one of the key components due to the global supply chain challenges, which would have delayed their product launch by a couple quarters. I spent time with the company figuring out ways to bridge the delay. I reached out to some trusted corporate partners within my network, and they were able to find a new source for the component despite being in high demand, and it got the launch back on track. The lesson was that even in times of global challenges, relationships and community are who come together to solve problems collectively.

Is there a company that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that story?

AbCellera is one that comes to mind that I championed very early in my career but ultimately wasn’t able to get the investment through. Both the tech and founders were phenomenal; they had shown a truly differentiated antibody discovery platform and had strong commercial interest among large pharma companies. It would have been one of the first two or three investments of my career. Unfortunately, our investors passed on the opportunity and fast forward to today, it’s a publicly traded company. The lesson I learned was that when the fundamentals of a business are right, to hold true to conviction around a company even when faced by doubt from others.

Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things I need to see before making a VC investment” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Who is the team, and why are they the right individuals to solve this problem? This is as simple as ensuring we have the conviction that of anyone in the world, this particular team has the knowledge and expertise to solve the problem at hand. Moreover, beyond current members, does this leadership have the ability to excite and recruit the top minds in the space to join their mission? One example of a team we knew had what it takes is Activ Surgical. They have a powerhouse management team that includes Dr. Peter Kim, the inventor of the tech who had already showcased an autonomous surgery proof-of-concept, and the CEO, Todd Usen, the former president of the medical systems group at Olympus. The industry know-how and network paired with the clinical and technical chops, dovetailed perfectly within the company.

  2. What is the problem, and how big is the market? Beyond looking at market numbers, it’s important for a startup to deeply understand the problem they are solving. Some teams we see building interesting technology and then searching for a problem to solve, while others we see spending the time to deeply characterize a problem before building the right tech solution. I encourage entrepreneurs not to try to fit a square peg in a round hole. In other words, identify the problem first. Determine the key issues and current bottlenecks in the space, then set out to build the differentiated solution that outcompetes others.

  3. What is the unique edge you bring? Is it your tech, your business model, your team, or something else? The unique edge is as simple as what your company is doing to outcompete others and what strategy helps you maintain that moat. If we continue using Activ Surgical as an example, they operate in a realm where surgeons need to look at blood flow before surgery to understand critical anatomy prior to making any incisions to reduce the risk of error. Activ Surgical’s tech applies computer vision to surgical feeds to visualize blood flow in real-time for surgeons as they are performing surgeries. In some cases, the tech provides differentiation, in other cases it may be a unique strategy or business model that brings an edge to execution.

  4. Who is excited to adopt this? Who is your customer, and how well do you understand them? While this might seem like it falls into market assessment, it is about having a nuanced understanding of who all the stakeholders in the purchase process are. Who is the end user and how excited are they to adopt the solution? Additionally, who is the payer and what is their feedback on the product, pricing, and business model? If the company is still pre-commercial, there may not be signed contracts; in this case, showcasing evidence that supports product-market-fit can help. In the case of ARTIS Ventures, we also lean into our network of Healthcare Pioneers, experts and industry veterans, as part of our due diligence process to help us validate market fit.

  5. How will we as investors bring value to this? ARTIS approaches investments as a true partnership, not just a check, so with each investment, we carefully consider what value we can add to the company. Once we reach conviction around an investment, then we look at ourselves and ask what edge we can bring, whether that’s through strategy, customers, partners, or talent. We do this in two ways. The first is by rolling up our sleeves and directly working with founders on anything from helping to identify gaps in data to early strategy to aiding with recruitment, etc. The second way we add value is through that network of Healthcare Pioneers, which includes executives from the top biotech, pharma, and life sciences institutions that both mentor and advise our portfolio companies.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

To empower people to take ownership of their own health. This includes having access to their health data, pairing it with the right education and resources to help digest what it all means, and ultimately with the goal of making it actionable. Whether it’s genetic testing data or data from smart watches, empowering people to both understand their individual health as well as to take ownership of how to use it to prevent downstream disease would be a benefit to everyone. Healthcare isn’t just about curing disease but focusing on prevention through proactive wellness.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Malala Yousafzai. She is one of the most inspiring people I can think of. Her tenacity and resilience to not only rise above an incredibly trying and almost incomprehensible history, but to then turn around and focus on helping others by founding the Malala Fund, which advocates for girls’ education, is incredibly inspiring. She is a shining example of leadership.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.


This interview was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium here: https://medium.com/authority-magazine/ameena-el-bibany-of-artis-ventures-5-things-i-need-to-see-before-making-a-vc-investment-8ab44ec3e292