Last week, Iron Pillar announced its investment in a life sciences technology company called Vyome. At Iron Pillar, we are on a quest to find the best technology companies and entrepreneurs who possess a remarkable combination of vision, intellectual property and execution capability. In Vyome, we have found that perfect mix. This is the story of why we invested in this breakthrough life sciences platform company.
Over the years as an investor, one important lesson I have learned is that when you come across a remarkable serial entrepreneur, build a relationship with him or her and double and triple down on his / her ventures as and when given the opportunity. Perhaps the best example of that approach that I saw during my tenure at DFJ was Elon Musk. The firm invested, and did very well, with multiple Musk ventures including Tesla, Solarcity and SpaceX. In the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem, there is such an individual emerging who is little known, but has already had tremendous impact, specifically in the healthcare domain. He tends to be low key, but his ambitions and achievements defy gravity. His name is Dr. Shiladitya Sengupta– an AIIMS topper, who got a Ph.D.from Cambridge University, did his post – doctoral fellowship at MIT and is now a professor at Harvard Medical School. I have had the pleasure of knowing Shiladitya for close to a decade through the MIT network. I first met Shiladitya during the annual MIT Emtech event, which was held in Bangalore in 2010. I was speaking at the conference, and after my panel ended, Shiladitya approached me, complimented me on my remarks, and introduced himself. He asked if he could speak with me about his startup, Vyome. He also told me about the fact that he had founded another company earlier and taken it public. I was intrigued by his pedigree and enthusiasm. I was interested in learning more about Shiladitya and Vyome. I spent time getting to know the team, the science and the market, but DFJ partnership decided eventually to not proceed with the investment. While disappointed with the outcome, I knew that Shiladitya was special, and I stayed in touch with him over the years.
Fast forward to 2016. Shiladitya knew that I was now part of Iron Pillar and asked to connect so that he could update me on his various entrepreneurial ventures. It turned out that Shiladitya had been busy over the past few years and co – founded two additional ventures– Mitra Biotech and Invictus Oncology (now called Akamara). But he was keen to speak with me about Vyome, the company I was most familiar with. He had gone through two additional rounds of financing and was now contemplating a pre – IPO Series D round and wanted to see if Iron Pillar might be interested. My initial reaction was what one might expect– we are a small fund focused primarily on consumer and enterprise technology companies.
It was unclear to me whether the partners would get excited about Vyome. But Shiladitya was persistent. With Vyome, Shiladitya was targeting the dermatology space, specifically developing an antibiotic ointment to treat acne with precision, without side effects, and without consumers building resistance to the treatment– which is a key issue with the current leading ointment in the space, Clindamycin. It turned out that Vyome had also developed an anti – fungal product to address the dandruff market in India, had licensed the compound to Sun Pharma and was selling in the Indian consumer market with solid early traction. Shiladitya had brought on board N.Venkat early on as a consultant, and then as CEO of the company. Venkat had previously run Emami, and was intimately familiar with the Indian FMCG market. That, by the way, is Shiladitya’ s modus operandi– he is the brains behind his ventures, a scientist with the ideation and research expertise. But he then hires the best and brightest in the relevant healthcare sub – domain as co – founders, operators and advisors to scale the business. He has created a life sciences research and development hub in Delhi where he assembles the leading scientists from around India and the world to develop new therapies and formulations. The drive behind Shiladitya (and his wife who, by the way, is a computer science professor and one of the world’ s top machine learning experts at University of Pennsylvania) is to have real world – class biotech innovation and IP developed in India for the world. With four companies under his belt, he is well on his way to doing just that.
What makes Shiladitya’ s approach special is that he uses existing underlying molecules, and leverages a combination of computational biology, genomic analysis and proprietary chemistry to repurpose them for a different target. With Vyome, Shiladitya has leveraged existing anti – biotic building blocks in an ocular anti – biotic and derived a new molecule for acne.There is a spectrum of therapies for acne that exist today ranging from topical ointments to benzoyl peroxide, steroids, oral therapeutics and combinations thereof. However, many therapies have a combination of significant side effects as well as resulting bacterial resistance mentioned earlier. Vyome encompasses simplicity of application(a topical), precision of delivery(to the point of lesion / inflammation), minimal side effects and designed specifically to prevent bacterial resistance.
While the initial reaction to Vyome from the Iron Pillar partnership was a combination of raised eyebrows and intrigue, I was able to convince the partners to at least meet Shiladitya and learn a bit more about his venture. That meeting in late 2016 in Noida got Sameer, Anand and Harish excited about Shiladitya and Vyome, enough to at least want to dig a bit deeper. None of us had the background to fully understand the science behind Vyome. Realizing that, Shiladitya described Vyome in layman’ s terms (which, as a professor, he is very capable of). We started contemplating a possibility of an investment. We knew that we could tap into our collective networks and find experts who could help us understand the science behind Vyome, as well as provide insights from a market adoption standpoint. That, by the way, is a core strength of the Iron Pillar team– that we can leverage business and technology resources within our large collective network as and when necessary for diligence and validation. We found an ideal individual who was both a scientist and a practising dermatologist. She performed a thorough review and came back to us very excited about both the science and the business prospects of the company. So much so that she wanted to work with the company on designing their upcoming clinical studies. As parents of three teenagers, my wife and I had dealt with the physical and emotional issues that kids (and adults) face with acne. We had also studied various treatment options, many of which had awful side effects. From a consumer standpoint, I was very excited about the prospect of a treatment that was targeted, with little to no side effects, and designed and delivered in a way to reduce or eliminate resistance.
From an investment standpoint, there are four key ingredients that the Iron Pillar looks for in a startup. I call it the T’ s and the M– Team, Technology / IP, Traction and Market. Over my investment career, I have realized that the venture business (and I would argue almost any business) is all about people. The best of times and worst of times I have had over the years are because of people. As investors, the Iron Pillar team cannot predict exactly how a startup will perform over time. But the key is to invest in teams who are remarkable in their execution capability, and can maneuver through the ups and downs that startups inevitably go through. I have been an investor in companies that were close to a unicorn status but eventually failed, and also in companies that were days from running out of cash and are now on their way to becoming unicorns. That“ people” bet in Vyome’ s case comprised the combination of Venkat, Shiladitya and the senior technology team. Shiladitya had assembled a world – class advisory board including the former president of the American Dermatology Association. He had also convinced Perceptive, one of the most successful life sciences investors to come on board, with a senior partner taking the Executive Chairman role. The Resistant Acne market is a multi – billion dollar untapped opportunity globally. Vyome’ s focus on drug – resistant skin diseases and the IP differentiates the company compared with the incumbents, many of which are decades old therapies.In terms of traction, the anti – fungal product has been in the market and doing well. The initial proof of concept trials of the leading molecule showed positive results, validated by an independent expert. Iron Pillar, as a firm, wanted to be associated with phenomenal people like Shiladitya and Venkat who personify intellect, humility and focused execution. Additionally, a fundamental hypothesis for Iron Pillar is to showcase and invest in entrepreneurs and companies from India that are bringing amazing IP, technologies and products to the global stage. Vyome is a prime example of that thesis.
Vyome has some remarkable investors on its capitalization table including Aarin, Romulus, Navam, Kalaari and Perceptive. While there is still a long way to go, Iron Pillar is delighted and honored to be on the journey with Vyome and looking forward to working with the other investors to help Venkat, Shiladitya and the entire Vyome team shine on the global stage. Upwards and onwards!