After Time For Family, Reflection, VC Samuels Emerges At Venrock

Xconomy San Francisco — 

After a two-year hiatus to care for her son, longtime Bay Area biotech investor Camille Samuels has returned to the venture spotlight.

Samuels is joining Venrock, a diversified venture capital firm founded in 1969, with what she calls a broader remit than she’s had in the past. She’ll still scout for biopharma and consumer health opportunities, but at all stages of growth instead of just early-stage work, which was her focus for more than a decade at life sciences specialist firm Versant Ventures.

“With the time off, I’ve had time to reflect,” she tells Xconomy. “I’m a better investor when I define my purview as reasonably broad. An aperture that’s just early-stage biotech, or with a single business model, that’s not a great way for me to be an investor. Being very specific about what I’m looking for turns off some of my antennae.”

She was one of four managing directors to step aside in 2011 as Versant shook up its biotech practice and looked toward a smaller fund. Her investments at Versant included Achaogen, Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, NovaCardia, and Transcept Pharmaceuticals. She remains on the Achaogen and Kythera boards. (Versant late last year filed its intent to raise a new $250 million fund, half the size of its current fund of 2008 vintage.)

Samuels’ older son, Luke, now 6, has a form of autism that became apparent in 2011, and her family decided changes were necessary. Samuels cut back and now says Luke is doing “a lot better, although my dreams of wrapping his challenges in a bow and being done with it won’t be realized,” she says. “There’s a new fire to put out every two weeks.”

Venrock, Cami Samuels

Cami Samuels

Most people in her business have too few hours in the day, but her situation is arguably more acute than most. She says she’ll have to fight to stay disciplined: “I’m super curious and have a large network, so I can get very busy very quickly on non-critical path behavior.”

She didn’t devote her hiatus exclusively to family matters. She has continued to work with Nathaniel “Ned” David, a cofounder of Achaogen and Kythera, as well as Syrrx, where Samuels was a board observer. She and David, of Arch Venture Partners, are also investors in Carmenta Bioscience, which is developing a test for preeclampsia, a serious hypertension disorder in pregnant women. Samuels has taken a board seat at the Stanford University spinout.

And Samuels said she has helped a dozen other entrepreneurs with their projects, “in some cases for equity, in some cases for free, and in some cases for wine.”

Samuels re-emerges at a time when the public conversation about women in business leadership roles is top of mind, thanks in part to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. The news of her return last week set off a round of congratulations on Twitter, with some noting the lack of women in biotech and, in particular, venture. Samuels herself noted a recent Harvard Business School study that identifies a gender gap in what the authors call “entrepreneurial persuasiveness”: investors prefer pitches from male entrepreneurs (especially good-looking ones), even when female entrepreneurs are presenting the same content. “I believe long-term the problem will fix itself,” says Samuels, but in the short term, the leadership of individual women is crucial. (She points to the social media and consumer Internet sectors as providing a place for trailblazers.)

She also gives credit to Venrock for giving her both responsibility and flexibility at a time when the venture business isn’t expanding. “I raised my hand, ‘mommy-tracked’ myself, then had the temerity to ask to come back in,” she says.

The fact that she uses “temerity” to describe such a move—spending crucial family time then returning to a job she’s quite good at—says a lot about prevailing attitudes toward life-work balance, and what that means for women in the workplace.

Samuels’ first Venrock partners meeting is next week, and she could see closing her first deal in the next six to 12 months. “There’s no rush,” she says.