"When you're an entrepreneur, you're always on display. You're always performing, and you're always questioning how the audience is receiving you"
Silicon Valley investor Steve Krawczyk talks to Michael Matias about the importance of grabbing opportunities, how patents play out in the pharma industry, and his role as an “emotional support angel”
Talk to me about spending nine years at the University of Michigan:
I was fascinated by chemistry and especially medicinal chemistry, how pharmaceuticals work, and things like that, so I chose the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy to study medicinal chemistry. In my first week on campus, I got a job as a lab assistant where I washed dishes and set up reactions. Three years later, I applied for my graduate program there, and I got accepted. And five years later, I obtained my Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry.
What was fascinating to you in medicinal chemistry?
I was intrigued by original medicinal chemistry and the fact that all drugs came from plants: morphine, belladonna, strychnine. I was also intrigued by how drugs caused different actions, for example, reserpine was the first anti-hypertensive, and it turned out it caused depression. Additionally, looking at the structures and understanding how similar structures had similar activities or sometimes similar structures had very different activities was fascinating. I also wanted to be able to cure stuff.
Tell me about the transition from medicinal chemistry on the East Coast now to Silicon Valley:
My dad was an electronics engineer and, as you know, Silicon Valley got started in silicon, so I always had a hankering for going there. When it was time to graduate, I started looking around for postdocs. I saw a postdoc position in California at Caltech for Peter Dervan, and I wrote up a proposal for antisense DNA but I didn’t get in. A couple of months later, I got a position with Gilead Sciences, a start-up in Foster City that was dealing with antisense where Peter Dervan happened to be on the board.
It sounds like you're actively looking for these opportunities and harnessing them, right?
I always try to place myself in places where these opportunities are just there, and I try to be in the right place at the right time.
Tell me more about your time at Gilead Sciences:
I ended up transitioning from medicinal chemistry at the bench, leading a discovery group, and then getting drafted into the patent office into the patent department there, because the pharma business is all about patents. Gilead Sciences’ idea was to mind the patent landscapes of other peoples’ patents to figure out how to design around it.
Why are patents in pharma such an important thing?
With pharma, it's really the idea that a certain molecule that can treat a particular disease is intellectual property because once that information is out, anyone in the world can go in a lab and make that molecule. With today's chemical technology, if you give me a sample, I can tell you the structure of that molecule usually within a couple of hours using the modern instrumentation we have. And then given the chemical knowledge accrued over the centuries, we can go in the lab and probably make that. Within the month, we can have a pretty good synthesis of it. So I can go to a pharmacy, buy a pill, analyze it, send it over to a contractor, basically make duplicates very, very quickly. That's why you need a patent. We're giving them this monopoly for an average of about 11 to 12 years. It's supposed to be 20 but because of delays, it ends up being 11, 12 years. Once the patent expires, if the system works like it's supposed to, that information is free and anyone can make that molecule
What misconceptions do people have about pharma?
People say pharma doesn't spend that much money on research, but to me, 80% of their budget is research and development; you can't have research and development if you don't have sales. Some people complain about pharmaceutical advertising, but on the flip side, it takes a long time for drugs to permeate. It took a long time for the medical community to adopt the HIV drugs Gilead developed, and thinking about prEP, we had to wait years before prEP became a thing.
Talk to me a little bit about what it means to you to be an emotional support angel:
Being an emotional support angel goes beyond focusing on the financial success of the company. I play the role of a mentor and a friend. So CEOs will confide in me and I’ll listen without any judgment and give them my two-cents. I’ll even reassure them when self-doubt creeps in. Entrepreneurs are always performing and will often question “What does the audience think of me?” That voice in our head can keep on ruminating so just being someone that they can trust to listen to is important.
Which three words would you use to describe yourself?
The ever optimist.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, while working as a software engineer at Hippo Insurance and as a Senior Associate at J-Ventures. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Amanda Katz