Meet Dr. Tony Kulesa, co-founder at Petri 

Steven Loeb · September 7, 2021 · Short URL:

Petri, which is funded by Pillar VC, focuses on helping scientists start companies

Venture capital used to be a cottage industry, with very few investing in tomorrow's products and services. Oh, how times have changed! While there are more startups than ever, there's also more money chasing them. In this series, we look at the new (or relatively new) VCs in the early stages: seed and Series A.

But just who are these funds and venture capitalists that run them? What kinds of investments do they like making, and how do they see themselves in the VC landscape?

We're highlighting key members of the community to find out.

Dr. Tony Kulesa is a co-founder at Petri

Previously, Kulesa was the founding Director of the MIT BioMakerspace, a community biology laboratory and incubator space, and an Instructor at the MIT Department of Biological Engineering. He holds a PhD from MIT, where his inventions of new platforms for drug discovery and microbial therapeutics were highlighted in Science Editor’s Choice and Nature Reviews Drug Discovery.

While at MIT, he was a founding officer of MIT Biotech Group and co-founded and directed 3 courses on biotech and entrepreneurship, including BiomedStartup, a course that coaches 10+ teams per year on research commercialization projects. 

VatorNews: What is your investment philosophy or methodology?

Tony Kulesa: We have a pretty simple philosophy, which is that we want to help more scientists start companies. That's what we're all about. The reason why we want to do this is because we're at the inflection point of an exponential in the life sciences, and they're also the most important problems we're going to solve in the 21st century, whether that's in our health as humans or in the health of our planet. They are, in essence, biological problems where biotechnology is going to be a really powerful lever. So, it's really important to be starting more of these companies.

In parallel, there's been a technological revolution that we're in the midst of in life sciences research, and the best way to make an impact on this problem is by trying to help more of those scientists start those companies. We’ve tried to build a firm that is focused on that mission and we've co-created Petri with leaders behind today's most iconic bio engineering companies, including founders and leaders behind companies like Ginkgo Bioworks, Twist BioScience, Exact Sciences, Beyond Meat, and many more. Our goal is to give folks who have never started a company before, the chance to learn from them, to have access to their network, their experience, their mentorship, in building those companies. 

We take an approach of trying to work with founders from day one of the company, even often before it's formed, working intensively with them towards recruiting a team on the strategy of the company, both technological and market strategy, as well as fundraising. We'll invest in that first phase of the company and we’ll continue to support the company over its lifetime. That's what we're all about.

VN: Talk to me about the evolution of life sciences. What's happened in that space over the last few years that has made it such a big opportunity for you?

TK: There's two things that are happening parallel: the first one is on the technology side and the second one is on the impact or problem side. 

From the technology side, the way I like to frame things is in terms of read/write access to biological systems. If you think about the origin of the biotechnology industry, it started in the 1970s when we started to get read/write access to DNA. If you think about biological systems as a hierarchy of layers, at the bottom you have DNA, which is the code that the system runs on; then you have the messenger RNA, which translates that into protein, which is the machinery. That is all organized into cells which are the basic unit of biology, which are then organized into tissues or organs, like your heart or your brain, and then those make up an organism, and then you have populations and ecosystems of organisms on top of that. So, when you think about read/write on every layer, the origin of the biotechnology industry was just about getting read/write to that first layer; being able to sequence DNA, being able to write it via cloning or synthesizing genes. That was, essentially, part of the revolution that created Genentech. But, if you zoom to today, we've seen just this massive acceleration of our ability to read/write every other layer in that system. So, if you think about RNA, we're living through the consequences of that right now with Moderna and Pfizer. We have the mRNA vaccines so we've been able to leverage that technology as a therapeutic. We even got protein; one of the most amazing things that has happened in this field has been AlphaFold and the ability to solve protein 3D structure prediction and that suggests that we should even be able to engineer proteins to have a certain form and function. In terms of cells, we've seen the advent of cell therapies really come to fruition, the ability to harness our immune system to actually fight cancer or to do other kinds of tasks in the body. In terms of organs, there companies are even working on pseudo transplantation of organs. In terms of reshaping whole ecosystems, think about the ecosystem of microbes that live in the human gut, or even just the ability to impact whole natural ecosystems, of which humans are a part of, through technologies like gene drives. These are all very recent developments where they've either just been invented or come to market and that is going to give us an amazing power to not only create new therapeutics, but to impact all other aspects of life. 

Thinking about what you use those for on the problem side, the problems of the 21st century are biological: we have an aging population, we're already spending 20% of GDP on healthcare, and that's going to continue to be a challenge. In terms of pandemic preparedness, we're living through the underinvestment of pandemic preparedness. Biosecurity is going to be a defining issue for the 21st century. In terms of having to feed a growing population and to do it sustainably, we need to learn how to produce food and materials, all the things that support us as humans, we need to be able to produce those sustainably. Also, a lot of people are worried about trying to capture carbon out of our atmosphere, and that itself can also be done with biological technologies. So, I see opportunity for what we're doing as the convergence of both the solutions space and the problem space starting to overlap and creating great opportunities for companies.

VN: Are these specific verticals you focus on? 

TK: There are a lot of existing markets where we're trying to build companies, like therapeutics, for example, where there are large areas of unmet medical need, but then there are a lot of new markets too. For example, carbon capture itself today is a very small market relying on voluntary carbon offsets, but we think there's a world in which you could see compliance markets, in which case the value of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere is going to go up at least 100x. We're starting to see this as well in how consumers are changing their preferences; Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have really proved this out in the food sector and we think we're going to see a lot more of that. We're starting to see it in fashion as well. There will be new consumer applications in medicine as well, like take 23andMe with consumer genomics, there'll be new business models to be explored in health that are yet to be imagined.

VN: Fashion wouldn't be a vertical, necessarily, that I would think of for sustainability. What’s happening in that space?

TK: There’s a report that came out about 18 months ago called Green Is the New Black, and it's about shifting consumer tastes, where a lot of consumers are starting to consider how the products that they're buying were produced and how materials were sourced. So, you can see it in everything from food to fashion. And, with fashion companies, especially, if you think about their materials, they have both the synthetic fibers as well as the natural fibers and there's all kinds of components that go into fashion too, like rubbers and leathers. So, we have a number of investments in this space, one is called Galy and the second one is Modern Synthesis, and they're building different materials that go into the fashion industry sustainably and the fashion industry seems to be really committed to having sustainable sources of their products, so that makes for a great match.

VN: It seems like almost every space where there are material goods could potentially be impacted by this. 

TK: Absolutely. I mean, as much as consumers have the ability to influence that. If you talk to Gen Z, so many of them are very conscious of the impact of their consumption. And so, they're factoring in, in their choice of brand, how those products are made and where they come from. 

VN: What's the big macro trend you're betting on?

TK: There's one other trend that I haven’t spoken to, which is cultural. I did my PhD at MIT and MIT is known to be a very entrepreneurial place. In fact, I remember when I was arriving there, they were talking about how if you took up the revenue of the companies started by MIT alumni, that it was equivalent to the 10th largest GDP in the world or something. This was trumpeted and championed by MIT. I was in biological engineering, and you could see a lot of that energy in software and other areas of MIT, chemical engineering and so on, but not in the life sciences. In some places it might have even been taboo, but mostly it was just uncommon for people to state any commercial ambitions from the work outside of it, outside of a few select faculty who were well known, like Bob Langer. I watched this transformation and, by the time I left MIT, it seemed like every lab was thinking about starting companies; now, often many of them have. This is both at the level of professors that want to see the impact of their work, as well as the grad students who, instead of wanting to become professors, want to become entrepreneurs. We're seeing this happen broadly now, not just at very entrepreneurial universities, like MIT and Stanford, but we're seeing this start to happen at so many other top tier research universities, like in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore. Chicago, Austin, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, etc. That, in itself, is a cultural transformation. The culture around these scientists now seeing themselves as entrepreneurs is the third component, in addition to the technology and the market opportunities. We're really trying to come in as the supporters of them to do that.

VN: What is the size of your current fund and how many investments do you typically make in a year?

TK: Petri is part of a larger fund called Pillar, and we just raised Pillar Fund III, which is a combined $190 million across two funds, and about 30% of that we've earmarked for biotech broadly; biotech, synthetic, biology, healthcare, etc. 

Since we started Petri with Pillar, we've made 14 investments in life sciences across both Petri and Pillar, and I think we'll continue on that pace through the next few years, though we are experimenting with new ways of trying to keep in that as well. We're not ready to announce anything yet, but we have a few things that we're thinking about.

VN: What stage/series do you invest in and how much is that in dollar amount for you?

TK: When you think about our mission, it's often trying to support these founders who maybe haven't even really considered yet what they should be doing with their technology. So, it's worth thinking about some examples of our portfolio where, in many cases, there was not even a company formed at the time and it became the first order of business to help them set the company up. There are a lot of academics who may have never really even thought about building a company before, but realize the potential of the technology or discoveries that they have. That's why we've actually built out a lot of programs: we have a free class that we run, we have a blog and a podcast, and we spend time at 50 universities a year doing workshops and talks, etc. A lot of that is about trying to inspire people. “If this is something that you could imagine, then this is the pathway that is available to you to do it, and we want to partner with you to do it.” So, a lot of our companies have really been at that stage where there's just one, two, three founders, often out of an academic setting, with just an idea, maybe some discovery that they've made in their academic work in the past few years. Then we'll work intensely with them to help recruit a team around them to really figure out the commercial strategy for the company, to fundraise more capital, to build partnerships, etc. So, in terms of where we are getting involved, you could call it pre-seed; we're often almost, in all cases, the first capital into the company. People use the terms of what to call rounds these days fairly liberally but that's how we define it.

We're typically investing up to $500,000 in that first formation stage, which is really just about being able to pay the salaries of the people involved while we build out the rest of the strategy for the company. But the benefit of Petri being part of a larger fund in Pillar, which has much larger amounts of capital, is they’re able to invest up to $6 million in seed rounds, and so we've made investments across all of that spectrum. It also gives us the ability to continue to support the companies through their lifetime through the seed and Series A, etc.

VN: What is Pillar and what is Petri’s relationship to them? 

TK: The mission of Pillar is quite similar to Petri but broader. So, Pillar also works at similar stages and supports founders in building companies across not just life sciences, but also software and deep tech. They've made investments across everything from crypto, where they run the first investors in Algorand, to biotech, where they were some of the first investors in PathAI and Asimov. In quantum they were some of the best investors in Zapata Computing, and they’ve made investments in enterprise software, like Jellyfish, and in agriculture, with companies like Kula Bio. They're really quite broad and really they've done two things which I find to be very aligned with the overall mission that we're trying to build at Petri: we've tried to align ourselves with founders from this from the start of the company, and we do that in two ways. The first is by taking common stock; it's not every deal that we do is in common stock, but we give that as a choice to the founders. If you look at the history of venture capital, when investors are making investments in startups they're making offers that are like a 10 page term sheet, and people joke that the 10 pages are basically downside protection everything that's ever gone wrong for venture capitalists. But we think that you should just own the same stock as the founders, with none of these other rights that come into play, because that changes your incentives. We want to have the same incentives and so what's good for the founders is what’s good for us. We believe that alignment there is really important in the early days of the company. The second thing is that Pillar was co-created with a large number of CEOs across many areas of technology, and so that's basically deploying the similar strategy that we've deployed with Petri, but on a broader scale. Those folks serve as advisors, mentors, often partners, collaborators, sometimes angel investors, in those companies.

VN: What traction does a startup need for you to invest? Do you have any specific numbers?

TK: We're really looking at the technology and the people. A lot of these companies are so far away from a product, it would be very hard to say anything about commercial traction. In fact, in some cases, there may not even be a market there yet, like in carbon capture, for example. So, we usually have our own point of view on what the market value of these things are, but really we're looking at how transformative the technology is and its potential impact. 

Second, we’re looking at the team. Is this person really a remarkable person who's not only the best in the world at what they do, but are they someone who is going to be great at recruiting others? Because, in the early days of the company, it really just is the people and the talent that can be routed there. Sometimes you get the feeling of like, "Why am I doing what I'm doing? I should just jump in and work with you." So, I often like to try and look for that feeling.

VN: Every single VC I speak to says the team is the most important thing they look for when they want to invest.

TK: Some investors will actually say the opposite; maybe they're just trying to be contrarian but Elad Gil, for example, often says the market is more important than the team. Or, one is necessary, the other is sufficient, or something like that; you can't have a successful startup without a huge market, so that's necessary. Sometimes the best founders will go find the right market. So, I don't know, I guess people have different points of view on it.

VN: It's interesting that you said sometimes there won't be a market. How do you invest in a company if there's no market? I'm assuming that you would want to help them develop that market, but that seems like a pretty big task, so how do you think about that?

TK: To be clear, when I say that there's no market, I mean no market today, and that we believe that there will be a market in the future.

We're not the experts at predicting what memes are going to spread on Twitter or whatever; what we're going to predict is what are going to be the big important problems in the world. In the long run, we may be wrong, but we think, eventually, the market will correct to value the solutions to those problems appropriately. We may be wrong about the timescale, but I think we'll be right, in the end, about what the real problems are. For example, I've worked on infectious disease for close to a decade and, at the time when I started working on it there was no market for things like novel antibiotics. If you had listened to that point of view, then you would never be ready with Moderna, which is now worth more than $200 billion or something like that. Our point of view is that you may be wrong on the timing, and that's affordable to be wrong on, but we absolutely have to be right about what we think the big problems are.

VN: When COVID first hit, there was a lot of fear in venture capital that things would freeze, but 2020 was a record year, and so will 2021. So what's happened with valuations over the last 18 months in the overall market, but especially in life sciences?

TK: SVB puts out great reports, and I encourage any readers to look into these; that's usually where we derive a lot of our macro level analysis. If you look at the trend of life sciences, it's been accelerating the past couple years, but the trend has really been that investors are paying attention to the technological advancements that are being made at a rapid pace. We've seen a massive influx of capital into biotech and if you look at the amount of capital that's available for a biotech VC today versus 10 years ago, the difference is almost 20x, if I have the numbers correct there. Even between 2019 to 2020, there was a difference of about $6 billion, or about a 60% increase. The difference between just 2020 and 2021 in the first half of the year is another $5 billion. So, the increase in the amount of capital in the past few years has been dramatic. 

Now, how's that actually shifted dynamics on the ground? What we've seen is that, with all the capital available, there are larger and larger mega round Series As and Series Bs, meaning multi hundreds of million of dollars. In fact, a lot of investors are starting to create companies themselves; that's a model of deep resort. And so, our mission is to try to open up access to that capital to scientists who we believe can run these companies. In fact, in the past 12 months, we've seen a lot of success from a lot of technical founders, like scientists, who were the first people to recognize the potential of the technology, starting to gain a lot of traction. You've seen a lot of companies go public, like Ginkgo Bioworks, for example, I think might be the highest valued private biotech company to go public ever; it was started by founders right out of their PhDs, right out of grad school. We've seen AbCellera come out of University of British Columbia with Carl Hansen, who’s a professor there, which went public last year. You see actually a number of companies that are just out of the circle I came from at MIT, like SQZ Biotech or Finch Therapeutics. All these are technical, founder-led companies. And so, investors are really starting to see that there’s a successful model there as well and I think we're going to see that deepen quite a bit in the next few years. That will start to balance out the narrow pools of companies that are drawing down all that capital, and it will start to be spread a lot more over many more shots on goal.

VN: What effect does that infusion of capital have? Having that much money, having those mega rounds early on, what does that do to those companies who then need to produce, even though it may take 10 years to get a product out, while investors might want to see results in just a couple of years? 

TK: In software, for example, there are metrics that the ecosystem has learned to value a company based on, like the lifetime value of customers, growth rate, etc. In biotech, we’ve also converged on ways of valuing the development of technology, because it does take so long to get to market; it can take 10 or 15 years to get your first product. And so, that's where we rely on benchmarking technology; often people at the pre-clinical stage know what the key models need to be to prove the superiority of their technology. In clinical trials, it’s run in an industry standard benchmark way to know how to value things at preclinical, phase one, phase two, phase three, etc. And so, that's the way that these companies need to benchmark themselves against their competition, whether it's an incumbent or emerging competition from startups. 

The benefit of there being a lot more capital available is that companies can afford to be a lot more ambitious. If you look at this generation of companies, they're way more ambitious than any before, and on the whole I think that's a good thing.

VN: How do you differentiate yourself from other funds to limited partners and to entrepreneurs?

TK: Petri’s part of the larger Pillar fund, and so we don't have our own limited partners; this is one vehicle within Pillar that we support founders with. 

In terms of differentiation, there's a number of things that we've done as a group that have given us a really competitive position within the landscape. I can answer the question from both the perspective of both Petri and Pillar: with Petri, there's a number of things that are fairly unique, which give us the ability to win competitive opportunities. One of those is really about focus; there’s not that many firms that are doing what we do. There are a lot of biotech VCs but they tend to be later stage, or they create companies themselves, and there are a lot of firms that do a mix of everything, but there are not a lot of firms that focus 100% of their efforts on just trying to do that formation stage work, supporting scientists turned founders. We're pretty uniquely positioned there and not just in terms of what we're targeting, but also in terms of the support that we give them. So, this is where I would return back to the larger theme of Pillar, which is really about supporting founders as well; it's about aligning incentives with common stock, and we have a really great platform with a number of folks on our team who focus 100% of their work on just the companies. Why does this exist? Well, if you look at this transformation into a founder-led mode versus a professional CEO that can be hired by a company, that professional CEO is going to come with a lot of experience and a network they can use for fundraising and marketing. They know which PR firms to call, they have all these industry contacts. A first time founder who has never done any of that before, our role is to build all the things around them to support them. So, across Pillar, we have people that focus on talent sourcing, on marketing, on fundraising, all these things. And then, similarly, at Petri we’ve tried to focus that network around biotech, so we’ve built an investor network of 400 investors that can follow us, we built a net faculty network of close to 300 faculty that can join SABs, that can contribute new IP into the companies. We're at 50 universities a year, and a lot of talent is growing out of universities. We've also have tried to build relationships with all the major strategic partners, especially in biopharma; we’re in Boston and they tend to be clustered in Boston, so we know the BD teams, or the corporate venture capitals, there as well.

The second one is about people. If you look at our team, we co-created Petri and Pillar with a really amazing group of people that are the leaders behind some of the iconic companies in their industries, and the ability to work with them, and access their network experience, is a really transformational opportunity for founders. The third part is that we actually spent a lot of time developing theses around particular spaces. From a founder's point of view, we already are aligned with them and, in fact, we may have ways to contribute our own vision to what they're doing. We're often relying on that match made with founders, and when I say, “Hey, here's the vision I think you could have for the company,” I hope to be able to get the responsible, “You're the first investor that's ever saw it the way that I see it.” That's often what we're striving for by spending so much time on building our own theses about where we're investing.

VN: What are some of the investments you’ve made that you're super excited about? Why did you want to invest in those companies?

TK: We're really proud of all the founders and companies in our portfolio. A lot of them are still in stealth, and so I'll just highlight some of the ones that are more publicly visible today, just from the fact that they've matured a bit since our initial investments, which were about 18 months ago. I’ll pick three which are a good representation across the areas where we're investing. 

The first one is Galy. They are essentially growing lab grown cotton; you can envision them like Impossible Foods in the cotton industry. The second one is a company called Matterworks, and if you think about DNA being the code of biology, they're essentially building the debugger. They’re building the ability to measure the biochemistry, the actual biochemical activity, of these systems, which is very useful for drug discoveries and synthetic biology, etc. The third company which I'll highlight is a therapeutic platform company called New Equilibirium Biosciences, and they are unlocking, for the first time, the ability to target about 70% of the cancer protium, which would be previously considered undruggable. They're doing that by building new technology to target a kind of protein called intrinsically disordered proteins, which, instead of having a well defined structure, they have an ensemble of many structures that they vibrate to, which makes it extremely challenging for drug development. They're bringing new tools from AI and quantum chemistry to aiding that. 

I'll return to some of the things I said about what we look for: in each case, there's a transformational technology with a big vision. With Galy, think about the scale of the cotton industry: there's really the ability to transform such a large industry and, as I talked about before with fashion, there’s incredible demand for sustainable products. Galy’s really the only solution for sustainable cotton. In terms of Matterworks, there's an instrument called the mass spectrometer, and this is the most advanced instrument that is available to life scientists, but nobody uses it because it's just so difficult for people to use. We’re going to see them make that achievement something that is accessible to every life scientist, and so there's the ability to really impact biological research at a fundamental level by making the tool accessible. The third one, New Equilibirium Biosciences, there’s an enormous potential impact there, with completely new technology to attack that cancer protium. 

In terms of the founders of those companies, the founders of Galy were actually a very interesting group, Luciano Bueno and Dr. Paula Elbl. This is probably the team that has the most grit from any entrepreneurs I've worked with; in fact, during the past year, with so much chaos around where they were going to be building out their lab space, they actually built a lab in a shipping container so that you can move it around. The founder of Matterworks was a friend that I had known who actually had a really interesting intersection of different backgrounds working in both machine learning as well as spending some time at the Broad Institute, which is a world leading genomics institute. That's where he first encountered some of the problems and market opportunities around what he was trying to invent. The thing that's really unique about him is he believed in the vision so much that he actually left the Broad Institute before they had even proved that they had a technological solution to this problem. And so, we just really admired the commitment to the vision there and the technical chops to be able to execute it and the self belief in doing that definitely. And Virginia Burger from New Equilibirium, I mean she's also just an incredible technical mind who could debate everything from the minutiae of the force fields that are used to simulate these proteins all the way up to just the choice of the therapeutic indication. We had known her from the time when she was a postdoc at MIT and then she spent a couple of years at a leading AU drug discovery company, XtalPi, and really wanted to bring together her learnings from that company and from her research at MIT, so she partnered with the the guy who wrote the textbook on intrinsically disordered proteins, Peter Tompa, to build this company and so that was just an amazing team there as well.

VN: Talk to me about your career a little bit. Your back is not a typical background for a venture capitalist, so how did you become a VC? And what are some of the lessons that you've learned?

TK: I'm 31 right now, and unless we make some tremendous advancements in the science of longevity, which is definitely possible, in fact that’s a scenario we’re interested in investing, I've got about 40 years to make an impact on my career. When I was starting to think about this five years ago, maybe I had 45 years. For any meaningful project that you do, and certainly this is known to anyone who's ever tried to work on doing something really, really meaningful on a large scale, it can take, at minimum, five to 10 years. It's very hard to do something faster than that. So, if I think about the scale of my career, and how many actual shots on goal I have to do to make an impact, there's not that many of them. And so, there's a lot of things I would like to achieve, but one of them has to be trying to help other people be more successful, trying to enable a lot of other people, and I was surrounded by many scientists that I thought had amazing technology and amazing vision for what to do with it, but they were just missing that partner. And so, that's really where the vision for Petri came from. I'm just one member of the team here, so everyone brings a different perspective but this is mine. So, that's why I decided I want to do this. It's really important that we're trying to do something new; we're trying to bring a new perspective and a new way of doing things that I hope it's going to unlock a lot of companies that wouldn't have otherwise been created. 

Now, in terms of my trajectory and how I came to this, my grandfather was a physicist and an electrical engineer, before there was really a field around electrical engineering. My dad is also an electrical engineer, and when I thought about how I wanted to spend my career, when I looked at the textbooks that were used in my college's electrical engineering classes, it was the same textbooks that my dad used. And I was thinking, “Where it is like when my grandfather was an electrical engineer, where the textbooks really hadn't written yet? Where is there not so much of a well defined field? Where is it still very much the Wild West?” To me, that was the life sciences, and that's definitely come to be true. Life sciences has the potential to impact society at the level that electrical engineering and computers did in the 20th century. I think we're at that point with biological technology now. That's building on a lot of computer science and electrical engineering, so it's not to sell those  short. So, that was why I entered this field.

I came to MIT in the department of biological engineering, not the biomedical engineering department. They were some of the first people in the world to think about biological engineering as its own discipline, and so that was the community that I intellectually grew up in; I was also at the Broad Institute and, as I described earlier, I lived through this transformation of the science that coming out at such a rapid pace that, even this year, it dwarfs what had been done in the previous decade. The second thing is that I have been part of this cultural transformation where so many of these people started to think, “I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to actually take this vision, this technology, that I have and I want to bring it to the world.” I lived that personally as a PhD student, when some of the technologies that I worked on were bearing fruit. I used to think, “Well, I'm an engineer, the metric of success to me shouldn't be citations on paper I wrote, it should be the number of users or the scale of impact.” And so that's my interest in starting companies; I actually tried to start a company in antibiotics discovery and failed at it because I wasn't surrounded by the right mentors and I also didn't recognize some of the challenges around building an antibiotics company. Ultimately, I wasn't able to raise capital. But that's where I learned the opportunity for building what Petri became. That's where we came from. 

While I was at MIT I built a lot of infrastructure for supporting startup creation by PhD students, postdocs, faculty, from their research, through student organizations. I was part of the founding team of a group called MIT BioMakerspace, which has now grown to be one of the largest student groups on campus, and from there we created three different classes that taught different aspects of biotech commercialization entrepreneurship. I was part of another effort that actually created an incubator space in a basement at MIT for hosting people that had their own independent ideas to either start companies or do independent research. And just from experiencing the growth of that community, I knew that this was not just happening at MIT but it was going to happen everywhere, so that's why we wanted to build Petri.

VN: What excites you the most about your position as VC?

TK: The part that I get really excited about is the level of the problems that we're attacking. I get really excited about the potential impact on the problems that I care about. I just had a kid and I like being able to think that we are really trying to get more shots on goal for the problems that will impact his life. 

One of the opportunities I see in venture capital is transforming culture. When I look at the impact of someone like Paul Graham, and what he had with his career, he really inspired a whole generation of people who started companies, and that's what I would like to do. I would really like to inspire more life scientists, give them the support that they need to start companies, and the opportunity to do that through working with Pillar is what I get really excited about. 

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