Versant Ventures’ Partner Cuts Back on Biotech Work to Spend Time With Family. For Real

Xconomy National — 

You learn early in journalism that when a business leader says he or she is resigning to “spend more time with family,” it’s usually baloney. Maybe they clashed with colleagues, got a better job somewhere else, or are bailing out from a sinking ship. The shades of gray are rarely discussed publicly.

Yet Versant Ventures’ Camille Samuels says she is cutting back on her biotech investing activity so she can spend more time with her two young sons. And in this case, it’s not some lame excuse.

Here’s the background: Versant, a high-profile fund with $1.6 billion under management in healthcare companies, is downsizing. As was reported on the In Vivo Blog last week, and which I confirmed over the weekend, four of Versant’s 10 managing directors will no longer be active investors when the firm raises its next fund. Brian Atwood, Kevin Wasserstein, Beckie Robertson, and Samuels will all continue to manage their existing portfolio investments with Versant, and keep their existing board seats, but they will not be actively involved with making new investments in Versant’s fifth fund, says managing director Ross Jaffe. Versant isn’t looking to recruit any new partners to replace them, he says.

Jaffe is being careful to say nothing about Versant’s future fundraising plans, to avoid running afoul of SEC regulations. But he does acknowledge that the size of venture funds is dictated partly by the number of partners around the table who put the money to work in startups. Since Versant will have fewer partners in its next fund, it’s safe to say the next fund will probably be something smaller than the last $500 million pot of money it raised in July 2008.

It would be easy to conclude that Versant is becoming just another casualty of the biotech VC crisis, which I wrote about here a month ago, and which seems to get worse by the day. There is angst about extremely tough regulatory barriers, and equally tough product reimbursement challenges. Maybe even worse, biotech suffers from an all-around lack of good old-fashioned sizzle in a world that’s obsessed with the latest offerings from high-tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook.

Camille Samuels

Samuels has invested a big part of her life for the past 11 years in Versant, wrestling with all kinds of biotech investing challenges like this. But now she’s focusing more on her two sons, about to turn 4 and 2. Her oldest boy, Luke, was diagnosed last June with something I’d never heard of before—Pervasive Development Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified. “It basically means high functioning autism,” Samuels says.

Samuels and her husband quickly started doing what many parents do in this kind of situation. They researched the best services and tracked down a variety of therapists to help. The family nanny was assigned to take the boy to services. They focused on the bright side—the “high-functioning”—part of the diagnosis.

Then, in September, her husband checked up on how things were going in preschool, and they weren’t happy with what they saw. Their son was “sitting in the corner, rolling cars down a ramp, all day long. Turns out he’d been doing that most of the summer,” Samuels said.

Since the condition is so poorly understood, the Samuels family realized they needed to get more involved. “The therapists need their care coordinated and updated, there are new therapies to explore every day, and parents need to stay on top of (even the best) schools to make sure the curriculum is optimized for Luke.”

Like any VC, Samuels is one very busy woman. She is currently on the board of four companies, which creates a fair bit of travel, in addition to fundraising, scouting new investments, and networking with potential acquirers of her companies. All that looks manageable when everything’s OK at home, she says, but this diagnosis changes things.

Samuels says her oldest son “is sad and anxious a lot—and his primary source of calming is cuddling with his mom—so my travel has been a big problem.”

The concerns with her son were coming together at a point this fall as Versant started planning for its next fund, and needed to find out which partners were ready to commit for a 10- to 15-year time frame to manage all the new investments. That all seemed like too much for Samuels, at least for the short-term. So while she’s going to keep her board seats, she says she’s cutting back to half-time at Versant through 2012. She says she may join a couple of nonprofit and public company boards as well.

Some VC peers have told Samuels they think she’s picking a good time to back off on her busy schedule, given how lousy the economy is for biotech. She says she disagrees.

“I think now is a fantastic time to invest, and I would love to be working full time investing,” Samuels says. “But I have the rest of my life for biotech—while the early intervention window for Luke is going to close in two years.”

Maybe Samuels will be in a position to use her expertise and contacts to help lead the charge to create a new therapy for her son and other children struggling with autism. If that happens, she could end up accomplishing what biotech is really all about in the first place—using the latest in science to create new medicines for people in need.

Whether that happens or not, Samuels’ time with family will be time well spent.

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