Julien L Pham Of Third Culture Capital: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder
Be measured in your successes. Know the reality that building anything involves highs and lows and highs again. It’s a rollercoaster but you can’t get off your seat or you’ll fall. You need to know how to handle both the wins AND the failures with humility.
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julien L. Pham.
Julien L. Pham, MD, MPH, is the founder and managing partner of Third Culture Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in “uniquely qualified” founders, through global agency and smart capital. He has over 20 years of leadership experience in clinical settings and in emerging medical innovation companies. As an investor, Dr. Pham is often sought out for his unique expertise in evaluating both biotech and digital health companies.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As the son of immigrant parents growing up in a Vietnamese household in Paris, I was immersed in different cultures from an early age and always struggled with my cultural identity. That internal crisis was amplified when I moved to the U.S. for high school, where I experienced yet another culture shock. The transition was extremely difficult at times, but it was also the best decision I ever made because these hardships turned me into the person I am today. I ended up staying in the U.S after high school for college, medical school, and the rest of my career in medicine (I specialized in Nephrology, which is kidney medicine), and entrepreneurship.
In 2011, there was this emerging movement of innovation and digital health in the Boston ecosystem, but at the time, nobody really knew how to operationalize it in an academic medical center, nor could anyone really fathom what it meant for the future of healthcare delivery. Part of my interests and research as a faculty member at Mass General Brigham, was to bridge that different and energizing spirit of innovation I witnessed outside the walls of the hospital, with the everyday activities of hospital workers, including clinicians and researchers inside the hospital.
From that point on, I became curious about entrepreneurship, and I loved the idea of bringing people from different backgrounds together and building something that is powerful, impactful, and meaningful. Over time, I became more involved in the technology and business side of healthcare and my entrepreneurial journey took off. From launching one of the first hospital-based innovation “skunkworks” labs at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, I then co-founded a digital health startup that recently got acquired, helped raise capital for a small gene therapy biotech via an IPO, and eventually started a healthcare VC firm, Third Culture Capital (3CC).
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
As a first-time manager, not having a track record is a major hurdle, and I felt the need to prove myself in different ways. Since I came into venture capital from a medical background, I didn’t have a built-in finance network compared to someone who has previously worked at a fund and who regularly meets and interacts with their peers in the investment world. There is a clear advantage of having prior relationships within the venture capital world that helps you access LPs more naturally. Working to grow my network, meeting with founders, while trying to raise capital, and ensuring the firm is “buttoned up” from a legal, compliance, and operational standpoint is very challenging to juggle. My calendar still reflects a lot of that craziness but learning to balance both work life and family is important.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My parents always instilled a great work ethic in me, which I’m sure a lot of individuals who are first- or second-generation immigrants can relate to. Starting a firm, like any entrepreneurial endeavor, is tough. You juggle a lot of things, constantly needing to prioritize your next task. Unless you have a team, a lot of the responsibility falls on you. Luckily, I never felt alone because I always tried to surround myself with mentors and advisors who have been there for me when I needed support, direction, or just someone who would listen. Ultimately, I feel I have the best job in the world because I am building an organization with my values, a strong mission that resonates with a lot of people, and a common purpose of creating a positive impact in the world through global healthcare innovation. I feel so many supporters count on 3CC to be successful now, and that motivates me to stay committed to the work and mission.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things at 3CC are going great, and we are currently working with some really exciting companies. We’re focused on building 3CC’s portfolio and are aiming to invest in around 25 companies, globally. We are also involved in some new partnerships that continue to broaden our scope and resources. One partnership with a global pharmaceutical firm will see 3CC scout the globe for digital therapeutics companies. I am also a part-time managing partner at another cross-border Asian fund that will help broaden our range of investments and allow us to accompany entrepreneurs from one stage to the next.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I am very passionate about what I do and have the tendency sometimes to go over minute details when discussing something I am excited about. For example, I had just been introduced to a potential LP, who was a personal contact of a mentor of mine. At the time, I was still new to the venture capital world and unfamiliar with the process of raising capital, so I went all out, explaining the fund philosophy and vision in probably “excruciating” details. I ended up writing him paragraphs upon paragraphs with my thoughts and vision for the firm, etc., with the intention to engage in what I felt was an important discussion about how unique and impactful 3CC could be. Even though I was just passionate about 3CC, looking back on it, I can see how that could have come across as very aggressive and overwhelming. The lesson learned is that you can be excited about what you do without overwhelming someone you just met with too many details.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
3CC invests at the intersection of culture and care delivery. What makes the firm unique is that it focuses investments in founders who don’t fit the mold. Our definition of “third culture” entrepreneurs is based on the concept of “third culture kids”, or individuals who spent part of their formative years in a culture other than their parents, or the culture of their country of origin/nationality. Third culture kids often learn from an early age to navigate and adapt to multiple environments, customs, and norms. As adults, this diversity typically results in broader thinking, more resilience, and adaptability. At 3CC, we want to empower entrepreneurs who don’t fit the mold and can bring forth novel science, technology, and innovative business models that can rewire the world for the better.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
There is a lot of value in being part of a community. For me, being involved in various emerging manager communities helps me get a sense of how I’m doing. Having peers to commiserate with but who can also cheer you up and share insights and best practices can be very valuable. Also, I am a firm believer that no matter what industry you are in, the magic formula to avoid “burnout” is to feel grateful for your everyday wins (learnings, relationships, simple joys), and remaining authentic to who you are and what you believe in.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful to have mentors and advisors who help me think through the important decisions to be made. These same individuals, in addition to my family and friends, help redirect me and ground me to remain the person they know me to be. It’s hard to mention just one person so I’d have to mention both my parents, who have taught me the value of hard work, self-sacrifice, paying it forward, and compassion.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As a fund, 3CC wants to compound capital AND compound goodness. We want to back successful founders who will one day create their own legacy of goodness. By committing capital towards creating a virtuous cycle of positive outcomes, we believe we can contribute to creating a meaningful impact in the world through better, more equitable care delivery.
Additionally, investing in diverse voices and points of view is instrumental in creating a richer and more just society. Not only do our portfolio companies have great founder stories, but they also are creating science and technology to address some of healthcare’s biggest challenges, such as improving maternal and infant health, providing better access to care for the most vulnerable populations, and accelerating drug discovery that is affordable and effective for all communities.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
#1. The importance of people. At the end of the day, it’s about finding the people who support your mission and your vision and are willing to invest in you. Whether it is design, communications, or accounting, find people who believe in you and what you do. The same can be said about investing — when people really care about what they do it is reflected in the organization.
#2. Keep ethics at the forefront. Although I am no longer actively practicing medicine, my guiding principle is the same as the Hippocratic Oath I took when I first became a physician: “First, do no harm.” Although any business needs to be profitable to be sustainably successful, it should not come at the sacrifice of your morals and principles. If you maintain a strong code of ethics in what you do, it will show in your business.
#3. Don’t cut corners. When you’re first establishing a company, you are dealing with a ton of different logistical obstacles, and it can be tempting to cut corners. If you went into a hospital and saw it wasn’t clean, you wouldn’t have a positive feeling about the organization and most likely would not want to go there to receive care. Although lives may not necessarily be at stake, you want to apply that same principle when building a business and take it just as seriously as you would in caring for patients.
#4. Keep it simple. There are many ways to do financial engineering. But especially at the early stages of a startup, there is no need to overcomplicate things. Keeping terms and other business processes relatively “vanilla” and easy to understand will help to streamline fundraising and make it easier for the founder to get back to do what they do best and focus on building. Always try to move forward with getting business agreements in writing as soon as possible to reduce uncertainty and potential headaches down the road.
#5. Take a step back. In business, and specifically in investing, it is easy to get wrapped up in the latest bright and shiny object or trendy concept. If all your competitors are interested and you are experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out), it’s important to take a step back and remain objective. Take a breath, think on your own feet, and take a serious look to determine if it is a good idea for a large market, a business that can scale, and one that has potential for exit within the life of the fund. Is it a good fit for the fund? Does it align with the rest of the portfolio? Use your own methodology and stay true to your company’s mission and values.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
When you are a founder or co-founder, it is important to understand the dynamics of the team. One piece of advice I’ve received way back in the beginning of starting my first company was that “the true nature of someone does not emerge during difficult times but can be seen by how they handle success.” Be measured in your successes. Know the reality that building anything involves highs and lows and highs again. It’s a rollercoaster but you can’t get off your seat or you’ll fall. You need to know how to handle both the wins AND the failures with humility. There are always lessons to learn. I realize it’s easier said than done, but others have done it successfully in the past… so it’s doable.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could start a movement, it would probably be what we are doing right now with 3CC. I believe that by investing in individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives, and cultures, we can begin to transform healthcare for the better and bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!