Co-founder of investment firm LongeVC, Sergey Jakimov, spoke to Health Tech World about where he sees the most potential in the market and the value of ‘healthspan’ over lifespan.
Serial entrepreneur Sergey Jakimov has co-founded three deep-tech ventures and raised more than $25 million in venture funding, securing him a spot on Forbes Latvia’s 30 under 30 in technology and healthcare.
The venture capital company supports early-stage biotech and longevity-focused founders that are looking to change the world, with a portfolio of companies across the likes of consumer health, AI for drug discovery, biotech and gene therapy.
But Jakimov is not interested in ‘hollow conversations’ about ‘living forever’. He’s excited by innovative solutions which tackle the increasing burden of age-related diseases and contribute to extending ‘healthspan’ rather than lifespan.
He spoke to Health Tech World about what investors in the space are really looking for.
What excites you most at the moment in the field of longevity and biotech?
I prefer to look at it the other way around. What doesn’t excite me are hollow conversations about living forever. The biggest issue that we have as a society is age-related diseases, and simultaneously, it’s also one of the most ignored issues. If you look at the burden of age- related diseases, you will see dramatic figures in all these categories, neuro, oncology, cardiovascular, all of the horseman of age-related diseases are there and the numbers are growing.
It doesn’t really matter who you are, you might be a scientist or you might be a fund – you might be inventing something, or you might be scouting for people who have invented something to support with capital – it’s all for one common cause and it’s one of the most important things to do in society from the perspective of added value. Longevity is not about how we live forever, it’s really about how we extend healthy lifespan or the amount of healthy years, in other words, ‘healthspan’ over lifespan.
As a fund, how do you approach finding new innovators and companies that you see potential in?
We’re an investor so we look at things rationally, and the data really matters. We are pretty famous for our scientific due diligence, so 90 per cent of our time is spent on science. We have a big deal team with PhDs in biotech, molecular biology mostly, and a very extensive advisory board that works with our deal team, providing input on science and market potential.
However, the disclaimer is that we don’t have a crystal ball, which means that we make mistakes as part of the business. If we have weeded something out, it means that it’s not a fit for us, it’s not that the company is bad or the thesis is not workable, we just didn’t resonate with it.
Are there any key things you always look for in startups?
We are still very much learning the process, you can always be better, but try look at companies on the first principle basis, detached from anything else. You’re trying to figure out whether the company’s clinical programme is interesting. Is it an unmet need? Is it feasible in terms of timelines, costs and data and the points that the company wants to measure? Is the team capable of actually pushing it through in the timeline that they’ve designed? And if not, do they understand that they will need additional workforce, so do they understand their limitations? Then we go by data. This is where we look at the market and whether it is something our pharmaceutical partners would go for.
What do some companies get wrong? Are there any red flags you look out for?
There is this false perception where some say that companies at the in-vivo and preclinical stage don’t need the entrepreneurial component. That’s not true, you need business development from day one. You need someone to deal with the industry, to build relationships, get the partners in and to give feedback from the industry to the R&D team. We do spend a lot of time looking at the team. We like balanced teams, it is very challenging to invest in a science-only team where there is no entrepreneurial component at all.
What lessons have you learned so far?
The biggest lesson that we’ve learned so far is to use the first principle basis to try to understand whether it makes sense first in a vacuum, and only then try to compare it with the competition. It doesn’t really matter whether the competitors are there or not. It’s good if they are, it means that the space is actually growing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to invest in the most advanced company in that specific therapeutic field. You need to invest in a sound clinical programme and very often the ones that are seeing early exits and getting picked by big M&A partners are actually the earlier-stage ones. You can lose good deals because you think that someone else is ahead and it won’t be needed by anyone, which is very often false.
What impact have recent economic challenges had on investment?
While Covid was a tragedy of course in terms of the death toll, it also stimulated R&D money into biotech and reinforced the interest in the industry. Then we have the Ukraine war, as a result of which a lot of clinical research was grounded because Ukraine was used by many major pharmaceutical companies to run clinical trials in complicated disease implications. All these protocols were disrupted and a lot of drugs were slowed down in terms of their entry to the market. Then you have the overall biotech kind of downturn which is evening out now and I don’t think is as dramatic as it was. Fundraising is more challenging now and some investors are shying away from platform tech in favour of more straightforward, single disease application therapeutics or small molecules, but I think for investors that have dry powder, it is actually a good time to be around.
Can you elaborate on that? Why do you think it is a good time to be investing in this space?
A lot of companies that were raising on hype back in the days when the market was hot did not necessarily have the clinical data and the progress level to substantiate valuations. Now, very often these companies weed out themselves as they are not able to raise the rounds if the science is not competitive at the beginning – a self cleaning activity has occurred.
Good science and good teams are still raising money. It’s a more competitive market for sure, but the quality of the offerings in the therapeutic segment and diagnostics is higher than it was because a lot of the junk is out. Now you’re looking at more substantiated theses, more clinical data and most importantly, teams that are not detached from reality and which understand that they need to be lean, they need to plan ahead. Sometimes the surplus of capital actually spoils people.
Are there any companies in your portfolio that you are particularly excited about?
We’re excited about all of them. We’re pretty proud of platform tech that we have invested in. We have examples of epigenetic programming and at-home blood testing tech, which is bringing blood diagnostics and health monitoring closer to people essentially by miniaturising lab equipment. A company that is making tremendous progress now is AOA Diagnostics, a Boston-based company dealing with early ovarian cancer diagnostics.
We’re still looking to close another 10 deals from fund one. We’re adopting the approach of if it makes sense, if it solves the need and if it actually contributes to healthy healthspan prolongation, this is where we are interested. We have been investing for two years and don‘t have any write-offs in the portfolio, so the due diligence is paying off.
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