A pharma insider and a music maven launch a health care VC

D.A. Wallach’s first meeting with his business partner could have been the setting for a romantic comedy.

Wallach met Tim Wright in 2018 at a beachside restaurant in Del Mar, Calif., where they dissected the health care industry over seafood. “Then we ended up, if I remember correctly, walking on the beach. It was very romantic,” Wallach said.

Wallach, 37, was a music maven whose college band had caught the attention of Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, leading to a job at Spotify and a dizzying 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, had spent his career working in drug discovery at Novartis and Pfizer, creating blockbuster products for inflammatory diseases.

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They could hardly have been more different, but an unlikely pairing was born that day.

Together, the two men have become biotech’s newest odd couple, launching a new health care VC firm called Time BioVentures. The firm boasts an eclectic mix of advisers and investors whom Wallach met over the years through connections in the music, tech, and health care industries. Facebook investor Sean Parker, whom Wallach met through Spotify, serves as an adviser, along with ARCH Venture Partners Managing Director Bob Nelsen and Nobel laureate Jim Allison.

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The creation of Time BioVentures, and Wallach’s introduction to Wright, plays out like a classic Wallach tale. It all ties back to billionaire Ron Burkle, whom Wallach met at a Grammys party. (Diddy introduced 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 for Biomedical Research (Calibr ), which Burkle became a board member of in 2017.

“I walk into the room, and there’s this kid sitting there. He looks so young. … But he asked some good questions. He’s articulate,” former Calibr Vice President Jim Schaeffer recalled.

Wallach had already begun to dabble in biotech investing. In 2015, Wallach launched an investment firm with Burkle called Inevitable Ventures. It was largely investing his and Burkle’s money, and got in on a handful of prime 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 health care industry. “He’s extremely bright and one of the few people, like me, who has been able to change careers two or three times.”

While Wallach has what Nelsen described as a “good nose for innovation,” he realized he needed more. Wallach decided to change tactics, bringing in more outside investors and a partner with a background in science and pharmaceutical R&D. “There’s just so much in drug development, diagnostics development, in particular, 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 Schaeffer that he was looking for a scientist-type to help him with a new health care venture. That led to an introduction to Wright.

Where Wallach brings the capital and connections, Wright brings scientific legitimacy.

Wright spent the majority of his career working at major drugmakers. While at Novartis, he helmed the development strategy for drugs like Ilaris, suggesting the company develop it first as a treatment for less common inflammatory diseases rather than the obvious targets of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. In hindsight, it was a stroke of brilliance: Novartis shelved plans to market Ilaris in asthma and rheumatoid arthritis after underwhelming trials. But Ilaris is now a blockbuster drug with $1.1 billion in annual sales.

“He’s sort of a father figure of drug discovery,” said Matt Tremblay, chief operating officer at Calibr and Scripps Research.

At their first meeting in Del Mar, Wright was taken by Wallach’s sincerity, and impressed with 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 quandaries. And although he was somewhat coasting into retirement, the venture world had always interested him.

The industry hasn’t seen a pairing quite like Wallach and Wright. Sure, there was a significant age difference between Andrew Schwab and John Diekman when they co-founded 5AM Ventures in 2002, Wright’s former colleague, Regulus Therapeutics CEO Jay Hagen, remarked. But Schwab and Diekman had previously both worked together in the investing world.

“What’s very surprising is how relationship-driven this industry is,” Parker said. Even with his connections, Wallach said it’s been difficult to break into health care investing. He and Wright ultimately raised a $100 million first fund from Burkle, venture capitalist Chris Sacca, Wildcat Partner Holdings, and even Wallach’s college roommate.

They’ve already begun investing that capital in companies like Neuralink (Elon Musk is a personal friend of Wallach’s). Time BioVentures has also pulled a Dutch startup called Kling Biotherapeutics out of bankruptcy, rebuilding the company and jump-starting a new cancer drug trial. It was a natural fit for Wallach and Wright, whom Tremblay said has maintained a sense of optimism, despite seeing drugs fail time and time again.

“We thought it sounded fun and exciting and value-adding,” Wallach said. “I think there’s one model where … the way you make a name for yourself is you beg all the big incumbent firms to let you into their deals. … Our attitude is the only reason for us to be in business is if we’re doing something that other people are not already doing in the market. The nature of investing and venture investing is that if you want to generate returns that are better than the average you have to be contrarian.”

Deals like the Kling investment are exactly why people like Wright and Wallach should be involved in biotech venture capital, those who know them say.

“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 work together .”

Rick Berke contributed reporting.

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