e.A. Wallach’s first meeting with his business partner could have been the setting for a romantic comedy.
Wallach met with Tim Wright in 2018 at a waterfront restaurant in Del Mar, California, where they dissected the seafood health industry. “Then we ended up, if I remember correctly, walking on the beach. It was very romantic,” Wallach said.
Wallach, 37, was a music major whose college band had caught the attention of Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, leading to a job at Spotify and a heady decade navigating the California lifestyle. You can spot Wallach making a cameo in his friend Damien Chazelle’s 2016 film La La Land as an ’80s cover band singer. Wright, 67, has spent his career in drug discovery at Novartis and Pfizer, creating blockbuster products for inflammatory diseases.
They could hardly be more different, but that day an amazing couple was born.
Together, the two men have become biotech’s latest odd couple, launching a new healthcare venture capital firm called Time BioVentures. The firm boasts an eclectic mix of advisors and investors that Wallach has met over the years through connections in the music, technology and healthcare industries. Facebook investor Sean Parker, whom Wallach met through Spotify, serves as an advisor, along with ARCH Venture Partners managing director Bob Nelsen and Nobel laureate Jim Allison.
The creation of Time BioVentures and Wallach’s introduction to Wright unfolds like a classic Wallach tale. It all has to do with billionaire Ron Burkle, whom Wallach met at a Grammy party. (Diddy met them after working with Wallach on a song. Wallach later helped Diddy and Burkle invest in Spotify, according to the Wall Street Journal.) Wallach’s friendship with Burkle eventually landed him in a conference room at the California Institute of biomedical research (Caliber), of which Burkle became a board member in 2017.
“I walk into the room and there is a child sitting there. He looks so young. … But he asked some good questions. He’s articulate,” recalls former Calibr vice president Jim Schaefer.
Wallach had already started investing in biotech. In 2015, Wallach launched an investment firm with Burkle called Inevitable Ventures. It invested largely his and Burkle’s money and was involved in a handful of top-tier deals, including Beam Therapeutics’ Series A round.
‘He and I have a lot in common. We’re both very curious and interested in science,” said Parker, a friend and Spotify board member who has also moved into the healthcare industry. “He’s extremely intelligent and one of the few people, like me, who’s been able to change careers two or three times.”
Although Wallach has what Nelsen described as “a good nose for innovation,” he realized he needed more. Wallach decided to change tactics by bringing in more outside investors and a partner with expertise in science and pharmaceutical R&D. “There’s so much in drug development, specifically diagnostic development, that you can’t learn. No matter how smart you are, no matter how many books you read, it only comes from experience,” Wallach said.
When the Calibr meeting ended, Wallach mentioned to Schaefer that he was looking for a scientist type to help him with a new healthcare venture. This led to an acquaintance with Wright.
Where Wallach brings capital and connections, Wright brings scholarly legitimacy.
Wright spent most of his career working for major drug manufacturers. While at Novartis, he led the development strategy for drugs like Ilaris, suggesting the company develop it first as a treatment for rarer inflammatory diseases rather than the obvious targets like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. In hindsight, it was a stroke of brilliance: Novartis shelved plans to market Ilaris in asthma and rheumatoid arthritis after insufficient trials. But Ilaris is now a blockbuster drug with $1.1 billion in annual sales.
“He’s sort of the father of drug discovery,” said Matt Tremblay, chief operating officer at Calibr and Scripps Research.
At their first meeting in Del Mar, Wright was charmed by Wallach’s sincerity and impressed by his investments in companies like Doctor On Demand and Beam. People who know Wright know that he likes interesting characters and relishes the opportunity to guide someone through scientific difficulties. And although he was somewhat retired, the risky world always interested him.
The industry hasn’t seen a pairing like Wallach and Wright. Of course, there was a significant age gap between Andrew Schwab and John Dickman when they co-founded 5AM Ventures in 2002, noted Wright’s former colleague, Regulus Therapeutics CEO Jay Hagen. But Schwab and Dickman had previously worked together in the investment world.
“What’s very surprising is how relationship-oriented this industry is,” Parker said. Even with his connections, Wallach said it was difficult to break into health care investing. He and Wright eventually raised a $100 million seed fund from Burkle, venture capitalist Chris Sacca, Wildcat Partner Holdings and even Wallach’s college roommate.
They’ve already started investing that capital in companies like Neuralink (Elon Musk is a personal friend of Wallach’s). Time BioVentures also brought a Dutch startup called Kling Biotherapeutics out of bankruptcy, rebuilding the company and launching a new cancer drug trial. That came naturally to Wallach and Wright, who Tremblay said maintained a sense of optimism despite seeing drugs fail time and time again.
“We thought it sounded fun, exciting and added value,” Wallach said. “I think there’s a model where … the way you make a name for yourself is by asking all the big incumbents to let you in on their deals. … Our mindset is the only reason we’re in business is if we’re doing something that other people aren’t already doing in the market. The nature of investing and venture investing is that if you want to generate better-than-average returns, you have to be contrarian.”
Deals like Kling’s investment are precisely why people like Wright and Wallach are involved in biotech venture capital, say those who know them.
“It’s so easy to just not invest in things or the few things that fit the magic formula or have big names behind them,” Tremblay said. “I was just delighted, for the ecosystem, to see two people like them working together.”
Rick Burke contributed reporting.