“I felt that all my life, I really wanted to help society and to help people”
Michael Matias is joined by Rom Eliaz, who shares how he encourages young entrepreneurs to venture outside their comfort zones
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Rom, tell me a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Israel in Be'er Sheva. I learned chemical engineering and biotechnology in Ben-Gurion University and Weizmann Institute. While I was in my Ph.D., I came across a few patents that we developed. I thought that we would like to maybe start a new startup company around our patents. I decided that I needed to earn an MBA. It was an MBA that started with the professors from Harvard University and Boston University in Israel. Then I moved to Harvard for a year. I wrote my Ph.D. during the day in MIT. I went to school in the evening to Harvard Business School. I went to do my postdoc at the University of California San Francisco. I went to play basketball, and then I was injured and needed to have surgery. While I was waiting for the surgery and recovering, I wrote a grant for the NIH. I got a five-million-dollar grant. We wrote a few papers in cancer research. A year later, I was an assistant professor in UCSF for gene therapy, drug delivery, and biomedical engineering. We tried to start a new company, but I then was asked to join ALZA. The company was acquired half a year later by Johnson & Johnson. In my first exit, I basically was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I was at Johnson & Johnson for about three years. If someone tells you that luck is not important, it is important. Better luck is always better than any other thing that you are doing.
Luck may be important, but in your case, I think your record shows your professionalism and ability.
I think that if you are working hard and you're trying to go to the right places, luck will go with you. At the end of the day, if you are really doing what you need, even if you fail, eventually things will go with you. After four years, ALZA wanted me to move to New Brunswick. I didn't want to move. I joined a small company called Rinat Neuroscience in Palo Alto. Rinat was acquired by Pfizer two and a half years later for like $500 million. We had one antibody for Alzheimer’s, we had one antibody for pain, and we have one antibody for migraine.
Where does this curiosity come from and this motivation to build or run businesses, while at the same time helping millions of people with your inventions?
I think it's coming from my youth. I had a cleft palate. I was a child that was dealing with doctors all my life because I was treated by them. I wanted to be a doctor. In Israel, you have to go to the army. The army wanted me to go and learn physics and computers. I said, "I don't want to." They actually gave me my own program at the time. I felt that all my life, I really wanted to help society and to help people. I really wanted to be a doctor all my life or a violin player. When I was 17 years old, I was accepted to Juilliard, but I decided that I'm not going to.
You don't go to Juilliard because you're not a violinist now. You're a venture capital in Biomed.
I'm still playing the violin, and I still have my own two CDs. I play with my friends. That's the beauty about music, and violin in general: you always can do it as a hobby. You don't have to do it as a profession.
Today you're in venture capital. What is it about this biomedical field that really intrigues you, and where are we headed now?
I think that one of the most important things in general is that if you attack a problem, you need to attack it from different angles. That's exactly where the medical field is going now. The collaboration between all these fields, like the neural cells, big data, AI, the machine learning, all the data and knowledge that we have from the medical field, this is where the world is going. You still will need to go back to the old biology and find the new targets and the new therapies for every drug, but the way there might be much, much shorter. You can be much more accurate, and the world is going toward personalized medicine. Each person is going to have a gene analysis. By knowing that, you would know exactly how to target. It's going to be a collaboration between engineering, biology, and hi-tech.
What made you transition from an entrepreneur and tech executive to venture capital? Are you mostly focusing on one of them or is it always a balance?
I think it's always a balance, and when you are investing in this biotech field, you really need to understand what is the field. At the end of the day, it's always people and it's always technologies. You need to understand this technology because you need to know how to make the right investment. At the end of the day, you invest in people. You need people who know how to solve a situation, who can solve a difficult situation. That's why people are the most important thing in everything. If you have good people and you have the right collection of people from different fields, you always will be able to do all this stuff.
I'm assuming that the companies that you invest in in the medical space are more long-term research, and the research is the business, right?
Definitely. We are always looking for cutting-edge technology. If you want to be a real entrepreneur, and you really want to take the risk, you really need to invest in cutting-edge technology. Taking a risk in life, you need to know that sometimes you're taking a gamble on the wrong application. But at the end of the day, you hopefully will be able to be the winner of at least one or two. Even a new technology can become merged to another technology (if it doesn’t work on its own).
If I want to be an entrepreneur in your space, and I have expertise in computer science and machine learning, do I also need to pursue academics in biology or biotech? Or is it enough that I find the right partners with that knowledge?
No. You don't need to be all of them. I always like to know a lot of things. You don't need to have a degree in biology. You definitely need to work with the right people, and I will definitely recommend that you would take some advanced courses. You will always try to learn more and more. You never can stay in your comfort zone. Once you're trying to overachieve in that and really trying to go out of your comfort zone and all the time learn and learn and learn, eventually you will get the right people around you. You need to know one thing really, really well. If you are really good in AI and machine learning, excel in it. Once you decide to do something in another field, definitely try and learn about it. You don't need to be the expert. You don't need to be the best person in the room, in the field, but definitely try to understand what they are talking about, so you know what's going on around you.
I need three words that you would use to describe yourself.
It’s motivation, never ending improvement, and always dream.
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