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How to Get Paid to Save the World: Jumping from Academia to Venture Capital

Research. Invest. Accelerate.

Krish Ramadurai
Oct 22 · 11 min read

Research. Invest. Accelerate.

This is the process that we use at Harmonix Fund in driving the next generation of scientific breakthroughs. As a former academic researcher and like many in the world of academia, the first step of “research” was an element I was deeply familiar with. Listening to thousands of hours of movie soundtracks while drafting manuscripts for publication or performing data analysis is an element that is all too familiar to people in academia, and for me, this was no exception.

But what happens when you decide to leave the ivory tower and jump into the private sector?

The beauty of academic research is the innate ability to utilize knowledge to move humanity forward and solve intellectual quandaries. The ability to use research to improve humanity was the cornerstone of my work at Harvard and MIT. While in academia, I have the privilege to use research to solve the world’s most pressing problems at the intersection of science, technology, and policy.

However, when I left academia, I pondered how one can maintain the noble nature of changing the world for the better and making a paycheck.

As it turns out, it is possible to be on the cutting-edge of research and solve complex problems, but instead of being a researcher, I switched clothes into a venture capitalist. Typically, one does not associate a career in investing and finance with saving the world but rather a functional monotony of striving for strong fiscal performance. While this is certainly true of most firms, I have found that venture capital can be a handy vehicle for solving real-world problems while maintaining the benchmark returns that investors expect from a fund manager. At Harmonix Fund, we’ve proven that you can develop creative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems in the form of technical advances in applied science and engineering and generate alpha, i.e., strong fund performance. This is certainly a delicate balance that requires continual refinement, but I can attest that VCs can have the same paradigm of nobility as academic research. At the end of the day, we’re backing the scientific breakthroughs that will ultimately transform an industry or practice, whether it be accelerating cures for complex disease pathologies such as cancer or ushering a new generation of national security innovations that will make our world a safer place. At Harmonix, we have built a fund portfolio around these critical innovations that will improve humanity, and in essence, quite literally get paid to save the world.

Often, I hear from students and academics that they have no idea how to functionally characterize their skillsets to align with private sector positions and feel woefully underprepared when in reality, they harbor several unique qualities that are very much valued.

Anyone can memorize and regurgitate knowledge. However, original ideation stems from an innate thought process that is learned through experience. I found myself in this very same position when I decided to leave academia and explore new opportunities. To be honest, jumping from academia to the private sector was daunting at first since I genuinely had no clue what people did after leaving an academic think tank. Academia is undoubtedly a bubble, and I felt like nobody was connected with the outside world. This was super frustrating at first, as I pondered frivolously on what I should do.

Should I go into financial services, government, consulting, or make a lateral move in academia?

I was on the struggle bus initially trying to explain how my academic research skills translated to these careers, but grit and passion will always come to the rescue at the end of the day. I put out hundreds of applications and had interviews spanning consulting and private equity to intelligence and government agencies. Throughout these interviews, I started to distill what kind of career I wanted and how I could be an asset to an organization.

Ironically, rejection is a great confidence builder.

Why? Because you can further refine your message to be better aligned with future opportunities, also rejection can be used as a conduit to build grit. Typically, those coming out of academia are the cream of the crop and are not very used to rejection, but you can either be constructive or destructive with it. I decided to be constructive and further refine how my skills in academia translated to new opportunities. As it turns out, venture capital ended up being a good fit and paralleled remarkably with my work in academia.

In essence, there are four qualities that I learned through academia that work well in venture capital and life in general:

  • Be a Polyglot: Always be learning and taking on new opportunities for development.
  • Be a Brainstormer: Think on your feet and tinker with ideas.
  • Be a Nerd: Translate technical topics into understandable ones.
  • Be a Kind Nerd: Stay humble and hungry.

Before we delve into these four qualities, I always wondered how people get into specific career fields.

It was frustrating to continually hear that it was just luck, “networking,” or good timing. While indeed this is certainly true, I believe in utilizing a more targeted approach. I realized that conveying how you can be a strategic asset to the organization and use the critical thinking and technical problem-solving framework learned in academia is extremely important. For venture specifically, each firm has a different thesis, investment strategy, and theme. Thus, you want to market your skills according to the flavor of the firm. If you are applying to a specialist life sciences firm, you likely are required to have technical competency in that field. If you are applying to a generalist firm that makes investments across a number of sectors, you want to show them you know how to analyze investment trends and uncover the next unicorn.

For VC, a firm is only as good as the founders and companies they invest in, so if you have a passion for the area they invest in, let them know and build rapport with the management team.

Reputation and performance are the two driving forces for VC firms. Thus, your ability to have a network to find great companies, analyze their potential, and execute on them are vital. But once again, what are the skillsets that those from academia can harbor to transition into VC? This brings me to my first point.

Be a Polyglot.

I came out of a science, technology, and policy think tank, whereby becoming a polyglot was a necessity. We were trained to think critically, and problem solve on a project-by-project basis, which allows for rapid iteration and ideation as new projects are brought on. Think tanks are unique in that no two problems are the same, and each project requires a highly creative yet functional solution. This very much parallels the VC world in that no two companies are the same, and the problem their solving generally requires an innovative approach and a functional solution. But what do you do when you have a myriad of different problems requiring a multitude of different solutions? You become a polyglot. This is extremely important in the venture capital world as the teams are very lean (typically less than 15 people). Thus, you need to be a force multiplier. Becoming a polyglot and understanding multiple sectors and technologies and their science makes you extremely versatile and valuable. But how does one exactly become a polyglot?

Have an open mindset and constantly be learning.

This involved applying my literature review and analysis frameworks to quickly process and dissect scientific and technical papers, journals, and books. In addition, learning from respected Key Opinion Leaders in the field and turning to our fantastic advisors for guidance. Continuous listening and learning are simple tools that anyone can deploy. When it comes to technical domain areas that one is not familiar with, have an open mindset and follow the literature to functionally understand the scope and application of the innovations in those sectors. Each company we invest in typically has 100+ hours of diligence performed. A substantial portion revolves around supplemental clinical and scientific literature review to substantiate the science and technology at hand. Furthermore, as one climbs the ladder in VC, your responsibilities are to expand from diligence and deal sourcing and operational support to founders, fundraising your fund, and a myriad of other responsibilities. Thus, the ability to work under stress and juggle multiple responsibilities effectively is paramount.

Be a Brainstormer.

During my time in academia, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to garner deep subject matter expertise and technical understanding in a number of areas and, more importantly, connect research to functional outcomes. More specifically, the ability to utilize an evidence-based approach in assessing opportunities by asking whether the data support the claim? An evidence-based approach is essential for those in technical investing fields in validating a venture’s science or technology. Coming out of a think tank, I was uniquely equipped with the ability to be exposed to a broad range of topics which increased my knowledge rolodex but also deepened my understanding of how to dissect vast troves of information and translate them into deliverables that be utilized to solve complex problems and improve humanity. Being a “professional brainstormer” allows you to dissect information, iterate on ideation, and ultimately develop a solution. This involves delving deep into technical, scientific literature and understanding where previous solutions have failed and where novel solutions can be functionally deployed.

But what does this have to with VC?

Little did I know that the ability to dissect mountains of information quickly and effectively and get to the point to make an executed decision is critical in venture capital. This ability to think and adaptively react critically is the cornerstone of my diligence process and is a skill set that everyone in academia has but rarely recognizes. At Harmonix Fund, we see thousands of opportunities and incredible founders each year, yet we can only make a handful of investments at the end of the day. These investments span everything from biopharmaceuticals to next-generation space technologies. Thus, the ability to adapt, react, and deep dive into ever-evolving technical fields is important to staying on the cutting-edge and separating fact from fiction, and understanding the true essence of innovation in these fields. Instead of turning to our partners and saying, “I don’t know,” I say, “what can I learn,” which brings me to our next point.

Be a Nerd.

Academia is an excellent incubator for an intellectual ecosystem that reinforces the fundamentals of inquiry and discovery. My entire framework for technical due diligence that I perform in analyzing investments stems from the scientific method I learned in graduate school and reinforced through my research career. Coming out of a think tank, I was surrounded by individuals with diverse thought processes and problem-solving skill sets, which ultimately allowed me to create an original framework for critical thinking. This allowed me to create my own unique nerd toolbelt and intellectual framework that I could apply in solving abstract problems, which is highly valued in careers outside of academia. Perhaps the most critical element that I learned from a think tank environment is that a true sign of higher order intellect is the ability to explain highly technical concepts in the most understandable fashion. If you think about it, this is very true and democratizes access to knowledge and innovation. This is critical, especially in STEM fields, as people are often put off by technical information with the notion that “smart” people can only understand those concepts when in reality, the information is not sufficiently explained in a conducive manner understanding.

Working with highly technical founders and students, I always discuss the art of storytelling.

There’s nothing worse than a brilliant founder with a game-changing idea that fails to capture investors’ interest since they cannot adequately explain their concept in an understandable manner. The reverse is also true, there is nothing worse than a founder who can tell a great story to hype up investors, but the science or technology is not what they say. In venture capital, we write up diligence memos that we share with our investors, advisors, and partners. I always make it a point to be able to dissect the highly technical nature of the science, technology, and engineering and make it digestible so that I can convey to everyone the true breakthrough of their innovation and why we should invest. This allows us to accelerate our diligence process, but more importantly, have a deep understanding of the science and technology behind a venture and how we can help to accelerate a founder’s mission. Democratizing access to knowledge breaks down barriers and allows people to truly understand the innovation at hand.

Be a Kind Nerd.

I have found that the people I respect the most do not need to let the world know what they have achieved and are perpetually curious. This perpetual hunger for learning more in conjunction with humility is a marker for true success, whether it be an entrepreneur, VC, or academic. Given that VCs have small teams, fit is everything, thus being a good person is paramount not only in our industry but just in life in general. If the vibe in a small team is off, that can mess up the operational flow and tempo of a firm and end up creating issues. Nobody likes working with people that have bad vibes, and in the VC world, everyone you meet and work with is a Rockstar (sometimes literally). Humility and intelligence are a dynamic duo that anyone can appreciate and is an element we look for in the founders we back. At Harmonix, my motto is when beautiful science meets incredible humans, amazing things happen. This is certainly true in life in general, as the convergence of emotional intelligence and technical intelligence creates a highly sought-after person that any firm would want to hire. This is the same on the entrepreneur side, as no founder seeks to work with investors that don’t have good vibes. So put good energy into the world, and most likely, it will be reciprocated in some way, shape, or form.

At Harmonix Fund, we have been fortunate to show that you can quite literally change the world as a VC fund.

Whether developing the world’s first AI-designed drug to enter clinical trials, creating the world’s first robotic cloud laboratory for synthetic biology research, or launching the world’s first rideshare satellite into space, it’s amazing to see what happens when beautiful science meets incredible entrepreneurs. The key for anyone looking to jump from academia to VC is realizing that you have the functional skills to make the switch. It just involves recognizing them and then tweaking them to suit the position or firm of interest.

There is no traditional path to getting into VC.

Everyone always has a wild or somewhat non-traditional route, which always makes for great conversation. So, if you are looking to take the jump, ask other individuals in the industry about their personal journey so you can best understand how to best position yourself for a new career and journey! Have confidence in being non-traditional. If anything, being different brings unique perspectives that are always highly valued. Your experiences are unique to you, so make sure to articulate them in a manner so that others can understand your awesomeness!

Krish Ramadurai is a Partner at Harmonix Fund — an early-stage venture capital fund investing at the intersection of healthcare, life sciences, and deep technology. Harmonix deploys evidence-based approaches to analyze, accelerate, and scale the science-driven breakthroughs of tomorrow, today. Furthermore, he is a multi-published scientific author and former researcher at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Taubman Center State and Local Government, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is an alumnus of Washington University in St. Louis, Harvard University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Krish Ramadurai

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VC partner at Harmonix Fund, karate master, and science nerd. On a mission to accelerate the scientific breakthroughs of tomorrow, today.

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The Medium publication for biotechnology and everyone involved in the revolution. The best brought to you by the brightest.