10 Questions w/ Iana Dimkova & Jessica Owens — Founding Partners @ Initiate
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Initiate is a venture investing and company creation platform that partners with exceptional entrepreneurs innovating at the intersection of life sciences, healthcare, and technology. Initiate Ventures invests in seed through Series B rounds while Initiate Studios co-creates companies, partnering with founders prior to the first institutional round of capital. The team behind Initiate has founded and backed some of the leading life sciences companies of today including GRAIL, Invitae and PacBio.
Prior to co-founding Initiate, Iana Dimkova spent four years at GE Ventures, one of the most active, healthcare focused venture funds in the U.S. While at GE Ventures, she was responsible for executing investments in healthcare technology startups spanning predictive analytics (AI/ML), genomics, clinical trial & RWE, novel payment & insurance platforms, and new models of care.
Before joining GE Ventures, Iana was with ProCure Treatment Centers. At ProCure she helped develop and operate the most extensive network of radiation (proton) therapy centers in the United States. During her tenure there, the company raised more than $700M in capital and secured strategic investments from large healthcare systems and independent physician groups. After leaving ProCure, she joined Alvarez & Marsal’s Healthcare Group, where she focused on helping private equity firms evaluate potential investments and improve operations at their existing healthcare services and technology portfolio companies.
Iana has served on multiple private and not-for-profit boards. She is the recipient of a variety of awards and is a frequent speaker and panelist at leading industry events. She earned her MBA from Columbia University and received her bachelor’s degree, with honors, also from Columbia University.
Prior to co-founding Initiate, Jessica Owens was a co-founder and executive at GRAIL, Inc. where she led numerous aspects of business and commercial strategy, marketing, and communications. Jessica led the incubation and spin-out of GRAIL, which in 2020 announced that it would be acquired for $8.0B by Illumina (ILMN). During her time at GRAIL, the company secured strategic partnerships with Bristol Myers Squibb, Merck, and J&J, hired over 350 employees, and raised over $1B in capital.
Before GRAIL, Jessica was the Founder and CEO of Spark Diagnostics, a digital health platform leveraging patient video and machine learning to improve the management of chronic neurological disorders. Spark was acquired by Opya, Inc. in 2015. Jessica incubated Spark as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Versant Ventures. The company was also backed by RockHealth and TPG Ventures. Prior to Acumen, Jessica worked in strategy and business development at Genomic Health (Aq: EXAS) where she sourced a strategic investment in Locus Development, which was spun-out as Invitae (IPO: NVTA).
Before joining Genomic Health, Jessica was a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers where she invested in and incubated life sciences companies. She was involved in the formation of Navigenics (Aq: TMO), Arresto BioSciences (acquired: GILD), Veracyte (IPO:VCYT), and numerous investments including Crescendo (Aq: MYRD).
Jessica is a Kauffman Fellow and served for nine years on the Board of Trustees at Agnes Scott College. She earned her MBA from Harvard Business School, an MS in Cancer Biology from Stanford University, and received her bachelor’s degree from Agnes Scott College.
We sat down with Iana Dimkova & Jessica Owens to ask their viewpoints on everything from top founder portfolio traits, seeking mentorship, to advice on preparing for fundraising…
What are the top 3 common traits of founders in your portfolio?
“The founders in our portfolio are knowledgeable domain experts (scientific, technical, or clinical). They understand their customers because they have been in their shoes. They also possess a bold vision for how their company can make significant contributions to the advancement of science while solving healthcare’s most vital challenges. Finally, as leaders, they earn trust quickly and build high-functioning teams.”
How does your investment criteria change in a recessionary environment?
“Due to our stage, we take a long-term view on building enduring solutions with sustainable competitive advantages. Our strategy is centered on business models that are (relatively) capital efficient in the sectors of life science tools, diagnostics, and healthcare technology. The wide availability of capital over the last decade significantly reduced financing risk for startups, enabling outsized bets in categories investors had shied away from. That trade-off produced step-function innovations in science (such as GRAIL), new business models (virtual-first), and accelerated the convergence of data with biology. Recessionary environments recalibrate risk appetites, but we remain bullish as existing industry tailwinds continue to produce fantastic opportunities consistent with our strategy.”
How has your worldview evolved since you first started your VC career?
“We have become a lot more comfortable with ambiguity. When we first started in venture, we thought it was important to know “the answer.” We now realize that investing and company creation are about surrounding yourself with smart people and trusting in your collective creativity to figure out solutions.”
Outside of operating experience & higher education, what is one seemingly random thing you look for in a founder’s background?
“Grit. The founder journey is an exercise in perseverance of effort. Without persistence it’s impossible to stay the course while on a 10 year, 24-hour / day rollercoaster.”
Outside of investing, what is one seemingly random activity that helps make you a better VC?
“Spending time with people outside of our industry. Healthcare can be insular and it’s no secret that the pace of innovation in our space has lagged behind. Thankfully, that’s changing, but interacting with individuals who are in e-commerce, fintech or real estate can be helpful in drawing parallels when problem solving or thinking through new product builds and go-to-market strategies.”
What has been the most helpful piece of advice you received throughout your career as a venture capitalist?
“‘People are everything. After a collective 50+ years in the industry, it’s the only thing we’ve found to be true 100% of the time.”
As an early stage investor, we often pick companies whose directions change. Can you talk about pivoting vs. staying the course?
“While we need to be excited about a founder’s idea and vision, we enter each partnership knowing that pivots are common as markets move quickly. It’s why we look for entrepreneurs with the capacity to persevere and change course when needed. Part of our diligence process is gaining comfort that a founder is receptive to feedback even when that feedback runs against their preconceived notions.”
As a founder building something new in the world, you are often in need of knowledge you don’t possess. How would you recommend founders go about seeking mentorship?
“Prioritize people who have been in your shoes and have the capacity and desire to invest in your career. Individuals who will take your call during a crisis and whose values are similar to your own. Prior success without a personal connection isn’t optimal for founders looking for trusted advice in the middle of difficult situations.”
How does your evaluation process change when it comes to backing first-time vs. repeat founders?
“We admire anyone with the courage to start a company. In addition to being investors, each of us has been a founder. Startups are not for the faint of heart. Investors get excited about repeat founders because they know what it takes to succeed and when you must pivot or admit that something isn’t working. That experience is invaluable. Having said that, some of the best founders we’ve worked with chose us as a partner on their first startup journey.”
How do you advise founders in your portfolio to prepare ahead of time for future fundraises?
“Always be fundraising. Start building relationships with potential investors as soon as you start building your company. Understanding what milestones are important to reach, and then driving to those goals, will position you well for an efficient capital raise. Spending time with investors outside of a formal process will enable you to determine if their skillset and outlook align well with your vision for the company.”
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