The Biotech Entrepreneur Who Would Eat the World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because when the Valley, with its billions, tackles a problem, you should pay attention.
By Sanjena Sathian
How to raise future rulers of the tech world: Yes, give them a computer. Yes, teach ’em to code. Yes, encourage geekiness. But also: Consider moving to a high school where your kids will encounter other future tech billionaires and kings and queens of scientific academia.
This is how it worked for Microsoft’s buddy duo of Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who spent their teenage summers coding together. And though you might not know his name, it’s also worked out for Vijay Pande, the son of a physicist and a chemist, who spent his high school summers programming in a basement as he and his friends launched a software gaming company (all four of those BFFs have Ph.D.s; one has two of them). While attending a public school adjacent to the CIA’s campus in Langley, Pande got himself invited to the Pentagon as an adolescent for building a simulation of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Helluva college application.
It’s a few decades later when I encounter Trinidad-born Pande at the storied headquarters of Andreessen Horowitz, aka “a16z,” the $4.6 billion venture fund behind Skype, Twitter, Facebook, Airbnb and more. Here, a famous slogan proclaims that software will “eat the world.” Now, let biotech begin its gobble as well. In November, a16z announced it was launching a $200 million fund to focus solely on biotech investments — a sector that, compared to apps, the Web and software, lags a decade or more behind, frankly. Pande, a bespectacled Stanford professor, is taking his first steps into the gilded world of investing. Time for the next Valley zeitgeist; the leaders of the biotech-disruption era believe that, alongside the incredibly powerful computing available in our pockets at all times and alongside developers’ ability to start up faster and cheaper than ever before, we ought to be launching and enjoying equally democratic biotech companies.
Though he does hold a Ph.D., he nabbed it in three years. Dad suggested he stay another year to grab a quick M.D. too.
An entrepreneur multiple times over, Pande reminds me with a bit of a scold when I ask what he’s yet to learn in the new job that he’s no novice and that he’s been doing due-diligence calls since 1999 for the various investors who sought expert eyes on a pitch. And already Pande fits in, sporting a requisite Andreessen Horowitz fleece and speaking the fund’s language of highly available technology — for the masses! Only instead of apps, Pande muses about how one day it will seem “kind of crazy that we think a pill is a solution to everything.” He spiels on the idea of drug repurposing — rather than trying to make new drugs, he figures, we can use what’s already out there to create a neat little cocktail of medicine.
Indeed, his company Globavir figured out how to use an existing compound in a new way to treat dengue fever. These computing approaches to biotech, says Christopher Scott, director of the Stanford University Program on Stem Cells in Society, are where the future lies: “It’s going to be the IT part of this, the bioinformatics part, that’s going to drive the revolution,” he says. I muse to Pande that his gig might have rather a lot at stake, lives on the line rather than our cyber existences. No, no, Pande chastises; his job is not to get his hands dirty in the lab testing various compounds, thereby avoiding the scary possibilities.
Therein lies an irony: It’s helpful for a16z to eschew the hairiest bits of biotech, like messing with our actual bodies, potentially unleashing horrible toxicities on the world, etc. But software can’t be the only, or always the best, medicine. Even as IBM’s Watson gets added to hospitals and data assists doctors with diagnoses, drug delivery to those who most need it remains a challenge, and nearly half of drug shortages, according to a 2012 report by the World Health Organization, are caused by problems in their manufacturing — the making of them.
Before all this, Pande was in the computing world, founding a project called Folding@Home, which modeled the infinite combinations into which proteins might fold themselves — using crowdsourced supercomputing. Meaning you could just download a problem to let the project use your computer’s dormant power while you went on with your life. It won a Guinness World Record and, of course, fits perfectly into the story of a decentralized, democratic revolution. Jeremy England, a highly respected MIT scientist who worked for Pande as an undergrad and postdoc, says this interdisciplinary thinking is Pande’s specialty: “Lots of people don’t have the same facility in crossing borders in the same way he does.”
In another life, Pande might have had a more straightforward career, perhaps as a doctor — but for the long, expensive school time. Though he does hold a Ph.D., he nabbed it in three years. When he called up papa Pande to deliver the impressive news, dad suggested he stay another year to grab a quick M.D. too. The smarty-pants parenting continues down the generations: Today, his two daughters seem similarly intense, hitting up computer camps; one decided to read all seven Harry Potter books over a summer.
Like Gates and Allen’s story, Pande’s is a reminder of the opportunity that accompanies proximity; Langley High School sounds a bit like a mini Silicon Valley, a place that inevitably breeds success. But he figures it wasn’t all an accident of geek friendship. He tells of visiting, in India, the ancestral village of his paternal grandfather, who got out of the village, landing a Ph.D. in physics. There, he met a gaggle of distant cousins, all dressed up to greet him. One was studying physics out of the classic textbook written by Halliday and Resnick. Pande grins. “It’s part of my DNA.”