A highly-respected entrepreneur, researcher, and author, Ali Tamaseb has built on his early experience as a business visionary to become a top venture capitalist in the life science and technology industries. He is a Partner at DCVC, a venture capital firm with more than $2 billion in assets under management investing in deep-tech startups. An Iranian-American, Tamaseb studied biomedical engineering at Imperial College London, and graduated from the SIGM Program at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
At DCVC, Tamaseb focuses on a broad spectrum of areas ranging from computational health/bio to cybersecurity. In the life science and healthcare space, he seeks to identify early-stage highly technical and defensible early-stage companies focused on synthetic bio and bio-logic, disruptive healthcare models, financial technologies in healthcare, and health insurance. His investments include Carbon Health, Medical Informatics, Starkware, Supplant, On Deck, All Health, and C16 Bio.
Tamaseb’s work has been featured in BBC, Guardian, Forbes, and Inc. among others. His latest book, “Super Founders: What Data Reveals About Billion-Dollar Startups,” is currently available for order. In conducting his research for the book, Tamaseb spent four years manually collecting one of the largest datasets ever compiled on startups, trying to understand what differentiates those that end up reaching billion-dollar outcomes from the rest. The data dispelled many myths and revealed new insights for understanding their success. To add color to the data, Tamaseb interviewed founders of billion-dollar life science startups such as Arie Belldegrun, founder of Kite Pharma and Allogene Therapeutics, and Nat Turner, founder of Flatiron Health, and other technology leaders, including Eric Yuan, founder of Zoom, and Peter Thiel of PayPal and Palantir.
Slone Partners: Did you experience a particular ‘a-ha moment’ (or two) early in your career that had a significant impact on your subsequent career development? How did those moments shape your own leadership model?
Ali Tamaseb: I’d mention two things that I learned early on that I’ve seen come back again and again and have had an immense impact on my career and leadership style. They’re both very simple, yet powerful. First is the power of understanding incentives and ownership. I’ve learned that I perform best when I’m given 100% ownership in a project, which entails the full responsibility to do the work or oversee a team doing the work and having full ownership in the outcome. Every single action needs to have an owner, a single person. It’s fascinating what a group of owners with aligned incentives can do. When you have owners, you retain talent, you give meaning to their work, and you avoid politics.
The second is the power of non-transactional relationships and connections. People change jobs, advance in their careers, and move industries all the time. I’ve come across the same people multiple times when we were both at different companies. When you have a transactional relationship and see just the short-term benefit by doing one-off transactions and nothing more, you’ve wasted what could have been a career-long relationship. Take the long-term view, create non-transactional relationships with a select group of people, and help where you can without wanting or expecting anything in return. In the long-term, those are the best relationships and the best connections.
Slone Partners: How did your early years as a founder and entrepreneur prepare you for your current work as a venture capitalist?
Ali Tamaseb: My early years in business helped me in many different ways. As a founder, your network consists of many other fellow founders, people who may be ahead of you and from whom you gain from their mentorship, as well as other peers at the same stage. My network from the days of being a founder is a never-ending source of opportunities for investment as those people are now working on their next companies. Another factor is empathy and understanding what are the real challenges founders face. Having been there, I believe I have gained a better understanding of what our portfolio founders are going through, the level of pressure they face, and the real problems founders have, not those that the VCs think founders may have. It turns out finding and convincing senior talent to join an early-stage startup is often the hardest challenge founders face, so I focus my energy on actively seeking out in my network and attracting great people to our companies.
Slone Partners: In your new book, “Super Founders: What Data Reveals About Billion-Dollar Startups,” you draw upon years of researching billion-dollar startups and the collection of thousands of data points to glean insights into what differentiates a highly successful startup from a less-successful one. What compelled you to start this research and write a book on the topic?
Ali Tamaseb: There are so many stereotypes about what makes for a successful startup. I kept hearing non-data-backed claims about why certain characteristics in founders make them successful, or why certain characteristics in the market dynamic, competition, and other elements involved with startups do or do not lead to success. Through my work, seeing more than a thousand new companies each year, I had a feeling some of these stereotypes would be wrong and I could no longer trust the advice provided by so-called “advisors” or people in the startup ecosystem based solely on their gut feeling or on their personal experiences. So, I decided to collect this data myself, and decipher what really are the true differentiators.
The data collection took four years. It encompasses 65 different factors for all the billion-dollar startups founded over the past 15 years, and compares them with those that raised venture capital funding but failed. I published some of my findings in a blog post in 2018, which went viral and garnered the attention of many industry players. So, I decided to expand that work into a book. I interviewed founders of 15 billion-dollar startups and gathered stories on more than 40 others, and tried to write a book that draws on this data but is also a fun and easy read involving stories and interviews.
Slone Partners: What were some of your most compelling findings that you talk about in your book?
Ali Tamaseb: The book is filled with counterintuitive facts and stories. For example, the data showed that age is statistically a non-factor, meaning founders of any age were equally likely to start billion-dollar startups. This goes against two common stereotypes – one is that most large startup outcomes are created by 20-something-year-olds who come up with an idea in college, or by people with lots of gray hair and decades of industry experience. The average age of unicorn founders was 34 years old. This doesn’t mean work experience doesn’t impact success, as I discuss in the book.
Another finding is that you don’t need a co-founder. Solo founders weren’t less likely to build billion-dollar companies. The number of co-founders, low or high, didn’t impact success.
Billion-dollar startup founders were, on average, more educated than their counterparts. There were more PhD holders among billion-dollar startup founders than there were dropouts.
However, the data also showed that among billion-dollar startup founders, as many attended top-ten ranking schools as those who attended schools not even ranking in the top 100.
There’s a myth that founders need to have personally lived through the problem they’re solving and be missionary about it. But many billion-dollar startups were the result of months of ideation and searching for the right problem to solve and were opportunity-driven.
Competition is good, or at least not an extinction risk; more than half of billion-dollar startups competed with large incumbents at the time of founding. Startups competing/copying other highly-funded startups were less likely, however, to become billion-dollar outcomes. Competing with a powerful incumbent actually increases your chances of becoming a unicorn! Go after Google, Cisco, Oracle. Don’t go after a shiny startup that recently raised a ton of money.
Slone Partners: You have written about the growing influence of Iranian-Americans in the tech community. What advice do you have for other young diverse aspiring leaders who wish to find their place in the life science industry?
Ali Tamaseb: When I came to the U.S., I knew nobody. I had zero connections, no friends nor established networks. I did, however, benefit greatly from the network of Iranian-Americans in Silicon Valley. This was the perfect starting point, and helped me both socially and professionally. As time went on, I expanded my network beyond nationality. My advice would be not to leave your identity, nationality, or race behind; cherish it and use it as a starting point for building your network and career. Get help and give back to that community. However, it’s also very important that you shouldn’t get stuck there and limit yourself only to that network of people of the same nationality or race or group. That should only be the starting point. Use that initial network to grow your connections and meet with new people.
Slone Partners: What are the things you make time for in your personal life that bring you the most joy?
Ali Tamaseb: It’s the little things here and there. I enjoy eating gelato on a weekday evening after work, going to picnic in San Francisco, and playing tennis or golf with a friend on a Sunday. I’ve recently started flying, both drones and Cessna planes. Seeing the streets and the nature of the San Francisco Bay Area from above brings me indescribable joy.