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Executive Q&A: Kim Kamdar, partner, San Diego office of Domain Associates LLC

Kim Kamdar is as comfortable talking about life sciences as she is investing in them.

Kamdar — a partner in the San Diego office of Domain Associates LLC, a venture capital firm focused on life sciences and health care — is able to mesh her affinity for the science and biotechnology behind health care startups with her understanding of what it takes to properly fund them and guide them through their early stages. With a background in small molecule drug discovery and a doctorate in biochemistry and genetics, Kamdar has been involved in therapeutic startups and in identifying companies with promising molecular and companion diagnostics to support personalized medicine.

Kamdar joined Domain in 2005 and became a partner in 2011. Before joining Domain, she was a Kauffman Fellow with MPM Capital.

“As a health care VC, I have this unique opportunity to roll up my sleeves and work with entrepreneurs helping to bring great science to fruition,” she said. “I get to work with people who are extremely passionate about what they are doing and have a drive to succeed. With them, we work to build great teams and hopefully great companies that can translate scientific and technological breakthroughs into new innovative medical products that make a difference in improving people’s health and lives.”

She also understands what it’s like on the receiving end of venture capital. Prior to joining MPM, she was a research director at Novartis AG, where she led research to uncover small molecules that modulated signaling pathway networks. And she is a founder of Aryzun Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company using protein-protein interaction mapping for small molecule discovery with an initial focus on anti-infectives and oncology. Also, she is the author of 10 papers and the inventor on seven patents.

Kamdar took time to answer questions from the San Diego Business Journal about the state of venture capital in San Diego’s life sciences.

Describe the typical health care-life sciences venture investment that Domain likes.

Domain invests exclusively in health care products —– therapeutics, devices and diagnostics. The majority of our investments are series A. We like to focus on early-stage projects that are at proof of concept, which could mean preclinical but heading into the clinic within six to 12 months. We like big ideas that have transformative potential — not incremental gains — for health care. The best concepts are those that might be high risk but much of the early questions can be assessed with initial seed money. As one of our partners Brian Dovey says, “Second to a big win is a quick no.”

There’s been a lot written about the medical potential for gene sequencing and the $1,000 genome. How does the VC industry look at it?

Today, we are finally at the point where the sequencing capabilities and scope are ready to deliver on the promises made initially on what they could and would bring to our health care system. Sequencing has become dramatically more economical in the last five to seven years, and novel technologies that leverage or build upon sequencing are enabling new understanding of disease as well as the development of better diagnostics BioNano Genomics has developed a highly accurate genome mapping technology to finish genomes and compare structural variation among genomes, which cannot be detected with today’s sequencing technologies but is key to understanding the role of DNA mutations and changes in disease and biology. With the dramatic decrease in sequencing costs, Ariosa Diagnostics has developed and commercialized a noninvasive prenatal test. Both companies would not have been possible just a few years ago, given the complexity of the data and the previous limits of sequencing technology.

How do you view the IPO window for health care and life science companies? And what does that mean for investors?

The IPO window for life science is open but selective. It also has been broader and more receptive to different types of companies, like Tandem Diabetes, a medical device company; Veracyte, a cancer diagnostics company; and Five Prime, a preclinical company but with a big biology approach in a differentiated space. The market is looking to get behind less risky stories, companies that have an experienced management team, and a clear and preferably short path in the clinic and to revenue. The sector clearly benefits from having a dual-track exit environment: a healthy IPO window and a bustling merger-and-acquisition market.

San Diego companies are well-represented in Domain Associates’ portfolio. Is that by design or by nature?

Domain Associates is excited to be a part of the San Diego ecosystem. There are great universities in San Diego with terrific research programs and a very collaborative environment. Domain is unique as a venture firm in that we have always been active in company creation. Starting with seed investment made in Amylin and Biosite in our first fund, we continue to value the great research and entrepreneurs that this region has to offer. We will continue to focus our efforts on helping to build great companies such as aTyr Pharma, based on biological insights from Dr. Paul Schimmel’s lab at The Scripps Research Institute, and Epic Sciences from Dr. Peter Kuhn, formerly at The Scripps Research Institute and now at the University of Southern California.

What are the opportunities you see for San Diego in life sciences?

San Diego has been home to a number of great companies and has a thriving life science and medical device practice. One only needs to look at recent 2014 M&A activity and you see companies such as Cadence Pharmaceuticals Inc., Seragon Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Lumena Pharmaceuticals Inc. as great examples. There are two areas where San Diego is particularly strong: diagnostics and integration of digital health. Much of the later is due to the pioneering vision of Dr. Eric Topol. San Diego has quietly become the center of global innovation for diagnostics, sequencing and lab products, with dynamic large and growing companies like Illumina Inc. and Life Technologies — acquired not long ago by Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. — to numerous small startups like BioNano Genomics, Applied Proteomics, Astute Medical and Epic Sciences as examples.

What are you most excited about in health care and life sciences?

At Domain, we are convinced that we are now entering a period of revolution in the health care industry. The engine for this boom will be improved and novel diagnostic products, which give more accurate and timely information about a patient’s disease and treatment response. For example, historically, we have treated cancer by focusing on where the cancer originated — prostate, breast, colon, etc. — not on what type of mutation caused the cancer. This is changing in a dramatic fashion today, and the primary reason is our ability to diagnose cancer at the molecular level and track those changes over time to monitor for treatment effectiveness and resistance. We are now on our way to delivering “precision medicine.” That is exciting to us because it means patients will get the right drugs at the right time so we can better treat their disease or condition, and we can control health care costs, because the most expensive drug given is the one that does not work.

As this industry becomes more global, what does that mean for VC investors?

Fueled by their growing economic power, new emerging markets — with higher disposable income per capita and greater demand for health care products and services — are a boon for VC biotech investors. A number of countries are poised to offer very attractive growth opportunities to global therapeutic, device and diagnostic companies

But they can be challenging markets to navigate. Domain believes in the power of partnerships to leverage investments and build portfolio companies that bring forward technologies and products to explore opportunities in the most rapidly growing markets in the world. To date, we have developed partnerships in Russia and China that allow us to bring late-stage innovative products to these markets. These collaborations can also provide a unique source of financial support for portfolio companies.

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