By Amy Duncan, Goldfish Consulting
In January 2018, SDEE fielded submissions from SDEE member companies who were interested in presenting to Illumina Ventures. Illumina Ventures is an independently managed venture firm focused on early-stage companies. On Investor Day, all companies who submitted applications were invited to a networking session, followed by breakfast in the Chronicle Room at The Alexandria in Torrey Pines, generously provided by event sponsor Alexandria Real Estate Equities. Associate Noel Jee from Illumina Ventures presented and took questions before the one-on-one meetings. Here’s what we learned from Noel about Illumina Ventures.
How Illumina Ventures Got Started
Illumina Ventures is an independent firm that started with an initial $100 million investment from Illumina in the summer of 2016. The firm was founded by Nicholas Naclerio, Ph.D., who was formerly SVP of corporate and venture development for Illumina and responsible for spin-outs such as Helix and GRAIL. Illumina leadership honored his desire to move into a VC role, recognizing Nick and his team’s ability to identify and nurture entrepreneurs, and provided initial funding to get started. To close out the fund, they raised an additional $130 million from other investors such as corporate, sovereign, institutional, and individual investors. The fund reached $230 million, closing in October 2017.
The fund not only focuses on what the founders know best—sequencing, genomics, and precision medicine within the life science tools and clinical diagnostics space—but also includes therapeutics and related fields that improve human health. The entire Illumina Ventures team has either a PhD or MD/PhD and takes an interest in the technical details as well as business. Noel says all the partners “get into the weeds” and want to know the core biology and technology, and advises entrepreneurs to bring their CSO and CTO along to the meeting or pitch. Most of Illumina Ventures investments are Series A, providing $1-10 million, but they will consider seed deals and convertible notes, and will adjust the funding amount to what’s needed to reach the next stage.
Illumina Ventures has made eight investments over the last one and half years: two in therapeutics companies, three in life science tools, one diagnostic platform, and two in a broader category. The two investments in San Diego include NanoCellect, a small, sub-$100K, fit-in-the-hood cell sorter using microfluidics that are gentle on cells. The other is Biota, which sequences bacteria in rocks to determine where to drill for shale, making drilling more targeted, efficient, and better for the environment.
One of the therapeutics companies is New York-based Kallyope, targeting small molecules to affect the gut-brain axis. Also, Santa Barbara-based diagnostic company, SerImmune, which has an E. coli epitope display platform that detects antibody signatures in blood to diagnose infectious disease, a platform that lends itself to partnering with others who want to identify antibodies present in blood.
Interest in San Diego
Illumina Ventures office is located in San Francisco, but their investments are global. While some Bay Area and Boston VCs prefer to invest locally, location doesn’t necessarily influence Illumina Ventures’ investment decisions. They are interested in San Diego because they have found the entrepreneurs here to be determined and tenacious. Here they find more tools and diagnostic companies with good scientists, entrepreneurs, and great biology. They also find San Diego companies tend to use capital efficiently to achieve proof of concept. While Bay Area VCs may fund proof of concept work, Illumina Ventures wants to see proven concepts before their initial funding - they want to fund viable businesses and not science experiments. With limited VC funding, San Diego entrepreneurs intelligently leverage SBIR grants to efficiently reach proof-of-concept before seeking institutional funding.
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