Sara Nayeem, M.D., MBA
Company: New Enterprise Associates
Sara Nayeem’s investment career at New Enterprise Associates is rife with high-profile biotech buys. Loxo Oncology, Tesaro, Clementia Pharmaceuticals and Nightstar Therapeutics were all snapped up in the past 15 months by pharma stalwarts Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Ipsen and Biogen, respectively.
Her successful trajectory at NEA—she will celebrate 11 years at the VC firm in January—goes back to college, when she was weighing her passions for the medical field and business.
Coming from a family of medical practitioners, Nayeem figured becoming a doctor would be the natural path. However, while she loved science as a biology major at Harvard, she wasn’t sure she wanted to become a practicing physician. As an undergrad there, she began taking economics classes and decided to join the business world.
Although she had already been accepted to the Yale School of Medicine, she deferred her admission to work in investment banking at Morgan Stanley. After two years, however, Yale asked her to make a decision to join or let them open up her spot.
Nayeem reasoned that she didn’t know what she didn’t know, so she enrolled in medical school even as she continued to be drawn to the business world. Her solution? A joint medical degree and business school. She graduated from Yale in 2006 with M.D. and MBA degrees and joined Merrill Lynch’s global healthcare practice. In doing so, she became the first medical school graduate of Yale who did not do an internship.
When asked about that trailblazing status, she chuckled and said, “I’m not sure that people thought that way at the time, and rather they thought it was trailblazing in a negative way, in that people would feel comfortable in not pursuing clinical careers.
"Yale Med is trying to prepare people for clinical careers and taking roles as physician leaders. But I do think now at Yale and other places, the view on what people can and should do has broadened.”
After three years at Merrill Lynch, Nayeem joined NEA, where she has remained since 2009. One of the things she finds most satisfying at NEA is her role as a biotech board member, working with management teams to advance candidate drugs through preclinical and clinical trials. She enjoys delving into the myriad of questions, from clinical trial development and funding to process development and even hiring.
“It’s a lot of fun to be involved operationally and to get to see these amazing drug developers and entrepreneurs at work and see how they think on their feet and pivot,” she said.
Another area of importance to Nayeem is diversity and inclusion. She’s active at NEA on issues like unconscious bias training, recruiting reforms and pay parity. And she’s working to push those ideas out to biotechs NEA has invested in.
“That’s the next step that we’re trying to think through,” she said. “How can we as investors encourage our companies to have diverse boards? How can we make sure their hiring and pay practices are fair?”
She sees her future as continuing to invest in biotech companies, especially around diseases and conditions with high unmet needs. She represents NEA on the boards of Centrexion, Complexa, Cydan, Imara, and Tiburio.
Nayeem looks forward to more opportunities to work on innovative disease-modifying therapies, but she also realistically tempers that with the ongoing challenges in the role.
The political conversation about drug pricing, for instance, is a concern because of its potential chilling effect on the venture capital industry and venture-backed biopharma companies, she said. That’s because limited partners, like pension funds and endowments, will “pretty quickly” shift investment dollars if there are big changes in the pricing or regulatory landscape, for instance.
That’s one of the reasons she’s taken up biopharma’s case with the government and will continue to do so. As part of her NEA role, Nayeem has begun to meet with lawmakers to talk about the roots of the biopharma innovation economy to highlight the big role that many small startup biotechs play in drug development.