Vida Ventures: Arjun Goyal
"Coming to the US was about impact—so that my efforts would lead to a medicine that helps patients.”
We are, as a species, dependent on storytelling: “Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories” [Noah Yuval-Harari].
Tales of heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies crowd our imagination— defining for each of us, how we view success, failure, and the impact we seek in our “hour upon the stage.” Yet with each story told, interpretations differ—what captivates one mind, can seem but a minor detail to another. Take the case of Louis Pasteur and his assistant.
Pasteur’s work on germ theory, vaccination and fermentation, underlies much of modern medicine, science and agriculture (1850s-1880s). A century after his passing, his heroic contributions and fame have yet to fade (think pasteurization). Yet, how many have heard of Mérieux? “When I was 16, a story that resonated with me was about Pasteur’s research assistant—a quiet guy named Marcel Mérieux. He started a small company based on some of Pasteur’s insights…today that company is one of the largest vaccine companies in the world,” says Dr. Arjun Goyal, co-founder and Managing Director of Vida Ventures. “Stories like that…exposed me to the many paths you can take to have impact in medicine and science.”
With Mérieux in mind, a teenage Arjun went on to pursue medical training at the University of Melbourne, known for its research rigor: “It was the only school in Australia where you had to do formal research as part of your undergraduate degree” (Q#1). As part of his course, the newly minted Dr. Goyal conducted research at Oxford with renowned vaccinologist Adrian Hill. There, he learned first-hand how to take a scientific story from bench to bedside: “We would go to lab meetings and discuss preclinical data alongside clinical trial results in Gambia. I thought that was really cool.” Inspired, Arjun returned to Melbourne intent on becoming a physician-scientist. After finishing an internal medicine residency and oncology training, he returned to the UK to pursue a PhD (Cambridge).
While at Cambridge, Arjun had the experience of co-founding a company: “I started a small company [Foresite Pharmaceuticals] with IP from my alma mater… I really enjoyed the experience of building something.” Convinced that an MBA from a US university would give him entree into the healthcare-business world, Arjun enrolled at Harvard Business School: “My experience at HBS gave me that network that I just didn't have as a foreigner.” At HBS he met Vida co-founder Stefan Vitorovic, and secured a job at the prestigious 5AM Ventures: “5AM was an opportunity to see how [investing and creation] are done at the highest level—it was a tremendous apprenticeship,” reflects Goyal. At 5AM, he was a Board Observer at Aprea AB, Spyryx, Pear Therapeutics, Portal Instruments, Entrada, and was part of the founding team of Homology Medicines. After three years of learning directly from the likes of John Diekman, Scott Rocklage and Andy Schwab, Goyal left 5AM to co-found Vida Ventures in 2017.
Though Vida now has 1.7B AUM, mentioned in the same breath as giants like 5AM, Arjun remains hungry to deliver on the firm’s promise: “We are in a great position, and it's taken a lot of hard work to get us here. But there is still much to do to fulfill the potential of Vida—developing medicines that matter” (Q#5).
Arjun’s story is ever evolving. It spans multiple continents, degrees and directions. Yet, looking backwards to “connect the dots,” (Q#1) a throughline emerges: a desire to impact the lives of others. When considering an investment, Arjun catapults himself into the future, always asking: “can this be a transformational medicine? Can this help people one day?” (Q#6).
In our interview, Arjun is refreshingly candid about his training path: lessons and mistakes, triumphs and tribulations, and the many sacrifices made. By telling his story, he hopes to help readers find what excites them: “There are so many ways you can make an impact, but having a sense of the direction is important.” Like any good story, each reader will glean something different from its telling. In Arjun’s own words: “There are no right or wrong answers in leading a meaningful life—it’s a very personal, very individual choice.”
Below is an interview with Dr. Arjun Goyal, co-founder and Managing Director of Vida Ventures:
1. What was your first taste of science and medicine—briefly, what drew you in?
Steve Jobs said it first, so I'm not going to claim this idea, but I feel it applies to my story: “you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
When I was a teenager, I didn't dream about becoming a biotech venture capitalist. Even when I was in medical school, I frankly had no idea what a VC was. From an early age, I was interested in having a career where I could combine three things. The first is impact: I was a first-generation [Australian immigrant], my parents came from India and sacrificed everything to give their children an education and set of opportunities that they never had.
The second thing I wanted was to follow my passion in science and healthcare—I was always strong scholastically in the sciences. The third thing I wanted was to have a career where I traveled a lot, and got to explore different cultures and worlds. I think this last component is a reflection of my background: I was born in Libya to Indian parents, lived in Australia, and traveled a lot when I was young. So early on, I felt I wanted to have those three things in a career: impact, contribution to healthcare or science, and the ability to travel the world.
After I graduated from high school, I actually did a year of law—originally, I thought I wanted to work in the United Nations and perhaps be a diplomat. I had studied French in high school, so I considered perhaps working in healthcare policy for the UN. But I dropped out of Law after a year because I just found it to be very boring. As a lawyer, it seemed that I would always be on the sidelines—in an advisory role. I realized that I wanted a profession where I could be doing something a bit more tangible and immediate. So, I transferred from Sydney to Melbourne for my medical degree—the [University of Melbourne] is very focused on research. It was the only school in Australia where you had to do formal research as part of your undergraduate degree. I completed my degree in medicine and French—still with the aim of eventually doing something in global health or healthcare policy. Over the years, I've noticed that it’s important to me to have a long-term goal, something concrete to work towards—[having a goal] really helps me feel like I am moving forwards.
[Did you have the goal of being the next Paul Farmer?]
I had certainly read the books about Partners in Healthcare and the impact he [Farmer] had. When I was 16, I did part of my high school in France as an exchange student—I was in a town close to where Louis Pasteur worked.
The other story that really resonated with me, was about Pasteur’s research assistant—a quiet guy named Marcel Merieux. He started a small company based on some Pasteur’s insights, well over a century ago. That company is now is one of the largest vaccine companies and in vitro diagnostic businesses in the world. It's still a family business. I can still remember when I was 16, and I came across that story, it really caught my attention. Everyone knows Pasteur, but few know of Mérieux, even though he played an important role in translating scientific insight into real world impact. Stories like that drew me to medicine and science, and also exposed me to the many paths you can take to have impact.
[What was your first deep exposure to science?]
An important year for me was when I went over to Oxford to do my research [as part of my medical degree]. I studied vaccine strategies to combat malaria at the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics. I worked with a scientist called Adrian Hill--he's now famous, because he developed a COVID vaccine—the prime boost vaccine that AstraZeneca commercialized.
It was an important year because I learned basic research methodologies, how to run experiments, and think like a scientist. Hill’s lab was also commercializing its work and technologies—it was truly a bench to bedside. We would go to lab meetings and discuss preclinical data alongside clinical trial results in Gambia. I thought that was really cool.
During that year I also did a course at the business school on how to commercialize life sciences research. I was 22 at the time, and I remember thinking that it could be relevant for what I ended up doing in the long-term. My time at Oxford really opened up my eyes: after that I thought I would become an academic physician-scientist.
[At what point did you discover an interest in the business side of medicine/science?]
[After Oxford] I went back to Australia, did my internal medicine residency, and started my training in oncology. I then returned to the UK to do a PhD. When I was in the UK [Cambridge], I started a small company with IP from my alma mater, Melbourne. We won some prizes and got some cash, and I really enjoyed the experience of building a company.
At that point, I dropped out of my PhD—this was in 2010. At the time I felt that I had to come to the US to learn the business side of medicine. I thought that I would give myself two years and do an MBA—I felt that I needed a network in the US to go further.
From what I had seen in my medical training in Australia and the UK—there was always this distinction between scientists and physicians and the “business guys.” Even though the scientists had the insight, it was the businesspeople who made the decisions—that never made sense to me. I've always found it strange that in our [biotech] industry the people who have the insights, while often consulted for technical input, don’t get to put it all together into a company. I felt that ultimately, I wanted to make decisions and help “put it all together.” I thought one way to get that training was to do an MBA. So, that is what led me to Harvard Business School. My experience at HBS gave me that network that I just didn't have as a foreigner. If I am completely honest, in what I do today, I rely 80-90% on my clinical and scientific training. However, HBS was important because it also allowed me to get my first job in venture at 5AM.
At 5AM I learned just how difficult it is to put a top-notch company together. You really need a village—great science, the best corporate strategy, very strong networks with big pharma. 5AM was an opportunity to see how this is done at the highest level—it was a tremendous apprenticeship. At the time  the firm was very active, and I was exposed to a lot. I also kept my medical license active in Australia—which I felt allowed me to take a risk and pursue something else [venture].
2. When you look back on your former training in medicine—how did these experiences shape your current process as a biotech investor?
To be a biotech investor, you need to have an identity. My identity comes from my experience as a physician, and clinical oncologist. I think like a physician, and am always focused on asking: what's the clinical need? What's the unmet need? How does a new idea compare to standard of care? What is the clinical development path and is it feasible [for docs/patients]?
These are the sorts of questions that I always start with, when considering a new investment opportunity. I always keep the ultimate end [clinical impact] in mind, and work backwards, which may be a different process than a PhD-trained investor would go through.
The great thing about this industry is that the goal is ultimately patient empowerment. You can be a very successful investor, if you hold patients first and foremost in your mind. I think that because of my training as a physician, [helping patients] is what I find most motivating. As I said, in my 20s I didn’t know what “biotech” and “venture” were. What I wanted was to have an impact beyond a single patient—one that could be far reaching. My career to date, has not been a straight line at all. But the one guiding force has been: how can I have impact in healthcare? I’ve tried to just always make decisions with this guiding principle in mind.
[What do folks coming from a medical background initially get wrong about biotech investing?]
Clinical knowledge is important. However, there are many other pieces of the puzzle. A physician or resident interested in investing really needs to take the time to understand those other components—such as the basic science, product strategy and team.
You don't necessarily need to “master” these other areas, but just recognize that they are important inputs. Another thing I would say is that biotech is an industry of incredibly high risk, and yes, incredibly high reward. Sometimes, new investors get enamored by the stories of success, without recognizing that successes are few and far between. If you are going into this industry, you have to really be passionate and comfortable with risk. It's not easy, and there are less stressful ways to make money. Doing well is not the norm, and it takes something special for that success. It takes a lot of commitment, an ability to read between the lines and think several steps ahead. In medicine you aren’t trained to do this—it’s something only gained through experience.
Medicine does however give you a great foundation. Clinical medicine today is so interdisciplinary—you need to integrate a lot of inputs to manage complex patients, and be action orientated around an assessment and plan. I think that attitude really lends itself well to what we do as an early-stage investors and company creators.
3. Prior to starting Vida Ventures, you were at 5AM. Who were some key mentors there, and what lessons did you learn from them about investing?
5AM is a very established fund, and I learned a lot of great lessons. One is to always have a respect for the entrepreneur and the scientists, through thick and thin. A second lesson is to really think about the risks early on and see how you can mitigate them: risks such as capital, team, clinical development, IP. Ultimately, the risk you have to take on is the biology and fundamental therapeutic hypothesis, but many others can be mitigated successfully. A third lesson regards the culture of a top firm—5AM had a very convivial culture and was a great place to work. I found it very enabling at that point in time. The guys who put that film together—John Diekman, Scott Rocklage, Andy Schwab—did a tremendous job setting the right culture and tone. They deserve a lot of credit. For me, it was a tremendous apprenticeship. [5AM] also helped build my network and figure out the rules of the game—rules that were separate from those of academic medicine or clinical practice, in which I was previously trained.
4. Now looking back as a more seasoned investor—when you first started in venture (roughly 2014), what were the biggest mistakes you made? Any specific anecdotes? What would 2023 Arjun tell his former self?
For some context: if 12 years ago, you told me that I would be a founding member of a “big name” venture fund, I would have said: “great, but that this is not why I came to the US.” Working at 5AM was a great job, but if you told me then that in 10 years I could be a partner or GP at 5AM, I would again say: “great, but that's not why he came to the US.” For me, coming to the US was about impact—so that in 30 years my efforts would lead to a medicine that helps patients. When thinking about my career, I have found it most motivating to think about what I would like to one day tell my grandkids about—this is not “getting rich” or starting a firm. It is about the impact you have on patients. So, I still feel like I have a lot of work to do to realize this impact.
In the US medical system, you can do so much with your degree—you can become a biotech operator or investor; you can run hospitals systems or start hospital chains; you can go into government and dictate health policy. There are so many ways you can make an impact. Having a sense of the direction you want to go in is very important. Once you establish that direction, you can really start moving forward. It is important to get this [direction] right in your 20s. Another key point is to enjoy the journey. If I look back, one regret I have is not giving myself time to “smell the roses” and enjoy the journey. I don’t regret making wrong decisions—I made plenty of wrong decisions—but sometimes I didn't give myself enough time to really enjoy the amazing places I was in, or the friendships I forged. So, I would tell my former self to pause a bit and just enjoy the journey.
I got some advice when I was training in medicine—I was told: “the best medical students, don’t always make the best doctors, the best doctors don’t always make the best oncologists, and the best oncologists don’t necessarily lead the best lives.” You have got to figure out what you want and what is most important. It is tough to have it all: I'm single with no kids, but I have a twin brother who is a doctor and married with two kids. Bottom line: try to understand your own level of ambition, and how you define leading a fulfilling life. There's no right or wrong answer--it's a very personal, very individual choice.
5. When you co-founded Vida in 2017, what was it like to be a fledgling fund amidst the bigger shops in Boston or the West Coast?
I look back at that time  as the best of times. When you're starting up a fund, you are scrappy, entrepreneurial, and singly focused on “making it.” It was incredibly energizing, rewarding and unifying.
How we “earned” our credibility was by working harder than a lot of other people, and making sure we were looking at every deal, utilizing our relationships effectively, and being quicker and more nimble than other firms. It wasn't easy—but I have to say the biotech community was pretty open and gave us a shot. I'd like to think as well that we were good actors to our entrepreneurs and co-investors. We worked hard to put together a team that was in the image of the founding principles of Vida. What I think is that although we have raised three funds, we are still in the early days. We now have to show that we can take these companies to the point where they develop medicines. From that perspective, Vida is still in the in the early innings. We are in a good position, overall, and it's taken a lot of hard work from a lot of people to get us here. But there is a lot of work to be done for us to fulfill the potential of Vida—developing medicines that matter.
6. Today, what gets you really excited about an investment opportunity? As you construct a model in your head of a company and go through diligence, what are the elements you are looking for?
The single biggest question to ask is: can this be a transformational medicine? It is tough to tell in the early stages, especially for some of these platform companies. If the opportunity is an early-stage platform spin out from academia, you must gain conviction that the platform can uncover biology that leads to important medicines—in a way that no other platform can. For me I initially ask clinically focused questions, and then work backwards. Everything else is derivative [from clinical impact], such as: what are the pipeline programs and how you prioritize them? What datasets give you confidence that it could be a real drug? Is it the right team or not? What is the market and IP like—the standard blocking and tackling of the diligence exercise. It all feeds into gaining conviction as to whether this can this one day be an impactful or transformational medicine. Now there are so many biotechs, and so many clinical trials being run, so the question is not can you get into medicine approved, but rather will it be clinically relevant? You must understand the evolving standard of care landscape. By the time you're in the marketplace, what will the new standard of care be, and how you can you compete? For me, these are some of the biggest questions to go after.
7. What are a couple areas of science and medicine you are very excited about seeing develop in the next couple years?
I break companies up into several buckets. The first is where the standard of care is very limited, really without any disease modifying therapies. This includes, unfortunately, a lot of rare and neurologic or neuromuscular diseases like DM1 and DMD. In this bucket there are also a lot of the solid tumors where median progression free survival is on the order of several months. In this bucket there is the opportunity to develop a medicine that has transformational impact, often involving a novel target with potential to be first in class.
A second bucket encompasses situations where we are going after highly validated targets that drive disease but are tough to drug. These targets include KRAS, TP53, MYC, beta-catenin. I get very excited by these opportunities. This is where the novel tools we have today in chemistry and AI/ML platforms are really starting to come into play. This is a huge area, not just in oncology, but also immunology and neurodegeneration.
The third broad area involves new emerging modalities, like cell therapy, gene therapy, oligonucleotides and RNA—ultimately the treatment impact we can have with these modalities will surpass small molecules or even biologics. Whilst there are a lot of challenges with these new modalities--whether it's CMC, delivery, target engagement—we are starting to see impressive responses in previously intractable diseases. So, I find this third bucket incredibly exciting. I don't try to bifurcate the world into distinct therapeutic areas, but rather consider segments of opportunity and risk that span multiple domains.
[What are the biggest barriers you see for this third bucket? What will dictate the “winners?”]
It’s a really good question. At least for me, the biggest barrier for these modalities is product strategy—again thinking about ultimate clinical impact. There are so many companies with similar platforms who are not able to articulate the right product strategy and differentiation. What is the killer application? Companies need to clearly understand why they can have transformational impact in a particular disease setting. Way to companies have been started simply because they were able to raise capital on the premise of RNAi, mRNA or cell therapy. But some of these have not clearly articulated: what can my technology enable that competitors cannot? How does my platform relate to a target and a disease, so that we can modulate the biology in a way that no one else can? Some companies have done a great job, but many others have not. Ultimately it comes down to finding differentiated technology that has been effectively applied to real clinical problems.
8. It is hard to get a job (or even fellowship) as an investor. What is a piece of advice for someone trying to break into VC? What are a couple proactive things they can do to prep and put themselves in a good position?
I think the biggest thing is just to read about the industry. It still surprises me that many people want jobs in the industry, but when you ask them about company themes, where they would put their money—they have no idea. So, there can be a disconnect between showing how passionate you are in your industry and wanting a job. Perhaps this is my own bias—the way I got my job was by being able to say things about biotech that more established investors agreed with. That is what I look for, and it is what a lot of people look for in the industry. It's a funky, small, highly networked industry. It’s not like academic medicine, where you apply and get a job and work your way up the hierarchy.
If you have real interest, it will come out and it will show. You will be reading news articles, and going through nature, nature medicine, science translational science. You'll know the names of good companies, and those that are not so good. For 90% of people that are just “looking for a job,” that knowledge never comes through—perhaps because they may not have a strong passion. If the passion to be an investor is there, that is great. If it's not there, then it will be tough, and you should think about doing something else.