IN 2016, INVENTOR and scientist Erik Gentalen reached out to a former colleague with exciting news, and a proposition.
"I started a company, and we could use some help," Gentalen said. The former colleague, Lena Wu, had worked with him around 15 years earlier as the director of business development at Caliper Technologies, a Mountain View, California-based bioresearch firm. Gentalen's new company, Intabio, would launch his latest invention, an instrument to analyze and ensure the efficacy and safety of biopharmaceutical drugs. Called the Blaze System, the machine could reduce the analysis time from weeks in some cases to less than 30 minutes per sample, dramatically shortening a drug's development period.
Wu joined Intabio's board later that year and became CEO the next. It was a hire that paid dividends in unexpected ways. When it came time to raise startup capital, Gentalen turned to Genoa Ventures managing director Jenny Rooke, whom he'd met through other investors in the life sciences industry.
"It was Erik's openness to bringing in Lena's complementary strengths that attracted me to the company," Rooke says. "When Lena joined forces with Erik as his business partner and Intabio's CEO, I knew the time was right."
In 2017, Rooke's San Francisco-based venture capital firm led Intabio's $3.2 million seed financing.
"It was clear from the earliest meeting that Jenny had great technical expertise, was willing to be collaborative in solving issues, and was thoughtful and strategic," Wu says. "Many people in Jenny's position are super supportive but not critical. She's the rare combination of both."
Rooke honed her expertise while earning a PhD in genetics at Yale, after which she worked at McKinsey advising pharmaceutical and biotech companies on business strategy. She also served in the executive ranks of U.S. Genomics (later called PathoGenetix), leading R&D and corporate development. Rooke knew the business. According to Wu, she had a keen eye for burnout, a common affliction among entrepreneurs. "She would say, 'You need to take a break. Now, go on vacation,' " Wu recalls. "I've never had another VC tell me to go on vacation."
Though Genoa didn't lead Intabio's Series A or Series B funding rounds, which brought the company's total funding to $30 million, Rooke introduced Wu to other investors and identified VCs to target. "We gained a great deal of credibility as a good investment given Jenny's reputation and the fact that she led our seed round," Wu says.
Intabio's first non-founder hire after raising capital was principal scientist Scott Mack, who helped develop the company's technology and was the first author of the company's published scientific paper describing the technology. (Mack's dog is also the Blaze System's namesake.) As of early 2021, Intabio had more than 40 employees.
Mack and Blaze (the system, not the dog) had their work cut out for them. Getting from a prototype that was tested only in-house at Intabio to a pre-commercial beta system took three years of development. Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Janssen Pharmaceuticals beta-tested the Blaze system, while Merck was an "early access collaborator" that sent samples to Intabio to analyze at the company's lab and return the results. Wu developed Intabio's go-to-market strategy and early access program, with Rooke helping refine and pressure-test aspects of the strategy.
When all was said and done, the proof-of-concept method worked. In January 2021, the life sciences company Sciex announced it had acquired Intabio for an undisclosed sum, just three and half years after the startup began operations. And when negotiating the deal, Wu relied on Rooke to play the role of not just investor but true partner.
"Jenny's input was, as always, both supportive and rigorous," Wu says. "It gave me the confidence that as a management team, we were making the right decision."