Meet David de Graaf, PIF Entrepreneur In Residence

“I have the immodest goal of believing I can change the underpinnings of research and development of pharmaceuticals in order to provide integrative, personalized patient care in all therapeutic areas.”

David de Graaf is known around Partners Innovation Fund for as a great CEO for any upcoming company. By training he is a scientist, earning a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Illinois, Chicago, in 1995, which might corner him into being a Chief Scientific Officer or a Researcher. Yet over the years, de Graaf took it upon himself to clearly differentiate from others in the field by successfully raising capital and learning business management. His ability to navigate through both worlds made him very attractive to Partners Innovation Fund and the companies we fund. He is a wonderfully kind person who understands science and who has a proven and sharp business acumen.

What do you think makes for a good EIR?

For me, it was essential to focus rapidly and to stay focused on one major project. In general, EIRs should have a good overview of their industry and have been in executive positions at several points in the value chain. They should be able to make photocopies for themselves and carry water for others on the team. Moreover, if you are in venture, you need to have a bunch of pithy, funny expressions to get you through boring meetings.

What would you say are the characteristics that make up an EIR at this level?

A successful EIR needs to have the duality of being exceedingly optimistic yet at the same time, reasonably paranoid. They need to be confident to believe something is going to work while staying reasonably paranoid that someone will steal your idea before you bring it to market.

You’ve been an EIR at other venture firms before.  How has this experience been different so far?

PIF has an entirely different set of resources available than other venture funds. In different venture funds, there may be more focus on one specific aspect of the venture world. It might be early, or it might have only to do with cancer. At PIF, the scientific world is our oyster. Some ideas are very early, some founders have no experience, some programs are near the product stage, and some are in areas I had never contemplated.

What is a Day in the Life of an Entrepreneur In Residence?

I will wake up and eat the usual, but perhaps the differentiation from anyone else is that I drink an insane amount of coffee. The hours are long and can be a little lonely at times, yet also enjoyable because every day is unique. Today I have meetings with venture groups to access more funding, meeting with scientists and area experts. I also meet frequently with peers as it is always beneficial to have friends who understand the highs and lows.

What have you most enjoyed about the experience?  What has been the hardest or most unexpected?

I love the creative stage, and I love evangelizing about things that mean a lot to me. I thoroughly enjoy the people and the enthusiasm, transparency, and collegiality at Partners. What is hard at Partners is hard everywhere. Creating something from nothing means that by definition there are resources one misses.

How can academics benefit from working with a PIF EIR?

I used to be an academic, so I remember what makes them tick. I have learned to think the other way around. Rather than – for example – say that you have this neat way to make a hoverboard and describe the process in great detail, I have learned to ask myself how the world changes if there were hoverboards. That discipline to think through to market is what an EIR can bring to an academic researcher.

How would you describe the current state of early-stage venture in Boston right now? 

The good news is that with an economy that has been growing for over eight years, funds are flush and that is demonstrated in sizable A-rounds. At the same time, the biotech industry has seen what happens if you are flush with capital and light on diligence. The diligence process has been expanded and is much more intensive than even a few years ago.

What was the biggest lesson you have learned in the last year?

“Don’t assume you know what someone else is thinking. Listen to people so you can understand not only what they are saying, but the reasons why they are saying it. “De Graaf went on to explain that by doing this you will be able to tell them your story in the way they want to hear it, rather than just how you might want to tell it. This will help you to understand their rationale for why they are interested, and most importantly why they will or won’t invest in you.

What advice do you have for aspiring, academic entrepreneurs/founders?

For founders, it is essential to inform yourself about the process of company creation. Venture Capital has its way of distributing ownership. I would also say that strong founders form a bond with the executive team and understand that they bring essential scientific skills to the table. There is a lot of science in turning an idea into a drug. Stay close, learn together and most of all, work with folks with whom you can have fun.

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