We sat down with Kulika Weizman, new general partner at Creative Ventures and one of the 10 women investors driving the future of Synthetic Biology, according to Forbes.
Can you share some details about your background and professional journey, highlighting key milestones that led you to become a General Partner in a deep tech-focused VC fund?
The boundless potential of technology and the art of harnessing it to create real-world solutions is fascinating, and my passion for technology and innovation has always guided my academic and professional choices.
During my time as an undergraduate, I dual-majored in both Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering and Economics at the Wharton School. After Penn, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Microbiology at UC Berkeley, driven by a passion of creating chemical engineering-like reactors within living organisms, particularly microbes’ cells.
Between the rigorous and structured thinking of engineering, the strategic perspectives of economics, and the hypothesis-driven experimentation of microbiology, I took on the role of founding CEO for a spint out company. That’s when I truly came to appreciate the challenges of a technology-push approach and realized that the opportunities for market-driven businesses in deep tech were largely untapped. Since this is a much more repeatable way to build a business rather than simply conduct a research project, I decided to transition into venture capital and joined Creative Ventures in 2018.
You’ve been an investor for half a decade, are there some fields in deep tech that you thought promising before that didn’t pan out or some that are even more promising today?
One area I believed would see faster growth (even before the pandemic) is digital therapeutics. While there have been instances of success—particularly during the COVID-19 era from 2020 to 2021—many digital therapeutics struggled to establish a robust presence within the healthcare system. The primary hurdle seems to be the stringent regulatory processes that digital therapeutics must navigate, coupled with limited financial incentives for various stakeholders. This landscape suggests that while the potential is substantial, realizing it within the existing healthcare framework remains a complex endeavor.
On the other hand, the physical infrastructure and tools necessary for AI’s full realization in the non-meta world are an underexplored and somewhat overlooked domain amidst the excitement surrounding AI. Take, for instance, AI for drug discovery: a field that has witnessed a proliferation of companies targeting similar problems. While there will be eventual winners in this space—a true therapeutic risk-reward model—the critical pick-and-shovel solutions (such as those needed to synthesize and test the molecules) as well as the elusive goal of increasing clinical trial success rates present mostly untapped opportunities. I see true venture-return potential in areas like biologics and gene and cell therapy development, not just in discovery and manufacturing. These domains continue to be underinvested, and they hold the potential to make a profound impact on the future of healthcare landscape.
Can you describe some of the most exciting or groundbreaking deep tech startups that you’ve invested in, and what drew you to them?
I’ve had the privilege of leading investments in some incredibly exciting deep tech startups. One of the latest being Tierra Biosciences, a cell-free protein synthesis company that’s focusing on developing solutions for biologics development and manufacturing. Tierra Biosciences is uniquely positioned to cater the growing AI-driven drug discovery market, where no matter how good the algorithms are, the candidates still need to be synthesized and validated.
Another exciting investment is in one of Hello Tomorrow’s former finalists, Kolibri, developing acoustic-controlled bioreactors for mammalian cell applications, specifically for gene and cell therapy manufacturing. Kolibri’s acoustic-controlled core technology represents a game-changing approach to replicating mammalian cell growth culture, done on a plate, within suspension tanks. Their method could lead to scalable, predictable, and cost-effective manufacturing schemes, enabling broader access to potential treatments that could address the diseases at their root causes rather than simply mitigating symptoms.
For improving clinical trial success rate, as a biologist, I know a little too well how complicated different layers of cellular mechanisms could be. We invested in a precision oncology company, OncoPrecision, for their functional assay solution, predicting treatment responsiveness in patients, and developing companion diagnostic solutions to improve clinical trial success rate for pharmaceutical companies. While the information on the DNA, RNA, proteins, or metabolite levels could be used to predict phenotype, having a direct phenotypical or functional read in a cost effective manner, is tremendously indicative of how the patients will likely respond.
Did you feel like you had to overcome challenges as a woman founder and then as an investor?
I am, at heart, a scientist and researcher through and through. In addition to my personal experiences as both a female founder and female investor, I have always been keenly aware of the statistics that shed light on gender disparities on both sides. When you take into consideration that I am also a person of color…well, I can assure you that I have had my own fair share of obstacles and challenges in the VC world.
That said, I am incredibly optimistic about the ongoing efforts to bring about systemic change for people like me and other underrepresented groups of people. I also believe in making changes from the ground up, too. To other women out there wondering where to start, I cannot recommend building a supportive peer network and finding a team that truly sees your value enough.
What advice would you give to aspiring young women looking to enter the deep tech space or the VC industry in general?
As I mentioned before, having a supportive network and great team are a great place to start, but it’s equally (if not more) important to be acutely aware of your personal strengths and weaknesses. Leverage what you are good at and actively address your shortcomings while seeking out a complementary team. The world of investing is collaborative in nature, so the way you function inside it should be too.
Beyond that, I highly encourage young women to capitalize on their unique position as a differentiator, and don’t ever let it isolate you from your goals. Finally, have a hypothesis-driven spirit. There are no true guarantees, so test away, taking in calculated risks, and find what works for you.
You are and will always be your most significant advocate. Don’t ever forget it.