Tell us about yourself?
I am Klaas Zuideveld, CEO of Versameb, a privately held biotech company focused on discovering and developing RNA-based drugs, modulating protein expression.
My background is in pharmacology and mathematics, and over the last 20 years I have built on this, working in a variety of roles within the Life Sciences industry, across everything from big Pharma to small start-ups.
I have worked for Roche and Caris Life Sciences as well as a number of smaller companies, some of which have subsequently been acquired.
Much of my experience is in drug and business development and I really enjoy working with start-ups and small teams, where it is clear what you are contributing and there is the possibility to achieve significant results in a small amount of time.
What do you think is the single biggest misconception people have when it comes to startups?
Every start-up is different. Depending on the activity, be it tech, logistics, entertainment or healthcare, businesses can be very different, and it would be a mistake to lump them all together in one big pile.
While start-ups have a ‘sexy,’ get rich fast image, there is a lot of hard work involved and most businesses fail. This is particularly the case in biotech. It is a high-risk industry; most drugs do not make it to the market.
I have worked on molecules which have been sold successfully, only to see later that the drug does not make it.
Working with new ventures is no doubt exciting and rewarding, and I personally really enjoy it, but it is not for everyone. Or as one of my mentors put it, you need to have the stomach for it.
If you could go back in time to any moment from your journey, and give yourself one tip, what would it be?
Do not waste time, cut things off fast if you do not think they have a future. In business it is very easy to get sucked into things by being too polite and nice to people. Learn to say ‘no’ fast if something is not productive.
What makes you stand out as an entrepreneur?
I would say I manage risk well; I drive ambitious projects forward in face of limited time and resources.
It also helps to have a broad skill set; having worked in applied mathematics, labs and business development makes it easy to relate to people and quickly see and prioritize issues and opportunities.
What are some of the best working habits you’ve gained over the past couple of years?
Listen, ask questions, but then make an informed decision fast; having more information and time does not always help you make the best decision. Sometimes a bad decision is better than no decision.
Second, I tend to keep my physical space clean of clutter. My desk is always empty, to the extent that people ask if I am leaving! Working in hotels and in different places in the early stages of a venture has taught me a habit and I think it helps me stay focused.
Give us a bit of an insight into the influences behind the company?
Certainly, a key influence in the case of Versameb has been its founder and CSO, [Professor Friedrich Metzger] his deep expertise in IGF-I biology and muscle physiology form the basis for our lead indication.
Together with recent advancements in RNA biology and vaccines a form of regenerative therapy in the case of Urinary Incontinence and combination therapy in Oncology have been created, neither of which were an option before. Innovation comes when different areas of expertise come together.
A form of lateral thinking where different forms knowledge convergence to find creative solutions.
Bringing people together from different areas, even if they do not speak the same (scientific) language, can lead to major leaps in innovation. The more different the people, the better the outcome.
Where do you see your business in five years?
At the core, Verameb is a platform technology so I would see us developing many potential drugs. In five years,’ time I hope to see a portfolio of clinical assets in different indications.
What do you think the biggest challenge will be for you in getting there?
Not to get distracted. Stress Urinary Incontinence is the perfect indication for Versameb’s. The market size is attractive, the mechanism of action is well understood, and the clinical development path is clear.
If we can stay on course and raise the required funds, then all will be well. We just need to remain focused on getting to the next inflection point.
Talk to us about your biggest success story so far?
For Versameb, I would say getting FDA Pre-IND feedback has been our biggest success and of what I am most proud. Preparing for Pre-IND feedback brings all your existing data and development strategy together in a format in which you can communicate it coherently.
The feedback was of high quality and extensive – and while not everyone may like the feedback, it equally it is the recipe for future success.
Yes, it is a challenge to raise finances and convince people to stay when the going gets tough, and I am proud of our team and the commitment they have shown, but I think in terms of success, achieving and working with the FDA’s feedback has been the company’s greatest feat so far.
How do clients and customers find you? Are you much of a salesperson for yourself?
Everyone is a salesperson! There is a misconception amongst scientists that they are no good at selling but I think this is rubbish.
Every person, whatever they do, is selling themselves all the time one way or another. At Versameb, we like to think we are strategic about finding the people and partners we want to work with, so it is more a question of identifying and then hunting them down.
But, yes, you are always selling a dream. If people trust you and think what you are doing is interesting, then they will want to work with you.
What one tip would you give to fellow startup founders?
In Biotech, focus on getting to the next major value inflection point for the company.
Do not get too distracted with side projects, and while you need to have a forward-looking strategy do not worry too much about details which are too far out to control. Stay focused, get the money and the people you need in place to get you to the next stage.
And finally, what do you hope the future brings both you personally, and your business?
Ultimately, we want to develop an innovative drug for patients, one that they don’t have today. The money is secondary, most biotech entrepreneurs are motivated by the desire to meet a medical need.
This tangible goal is what drives business. In the case of building biotech businesses, the reality is that, by the time this happens, you are usually doing something else, but there is huge satisfaction in moving things forward.
On a personal level, I am continuously learning, as or perhaps even more so when things fail, and I think this is important.