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Why Andreessen Horowitz is starting to invest in therapeutics

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Initially, the plan was to steer clear of healthcare.

Andreessen Horowitz, a top Silicon Valley venture capital firm known for investing in tech startups like Facebook and Instagram, changed its tune in 2015. That year, it launched its first bio-fund, focused on backing biotech-based software companies.

The venture firm is famous for its slogan “software is eating the world,” and it found that was increasingly the case in healthcare, too. Still, Andreessen Horowitz — often referred to as a16z — planned to stick to investments in areas like artificial intelligence and machine learning, and wasn’t ready to jump into the world of developing new medical treatments, a16z general partner Jorge Conde told Business Insider in an interview last week in San Francisco.

Now, as the firm invests its second, $450 million, bio-fund, a16z is looking to make more investments in therapeutics, particularly ones that have “superpowers,” Conde said. In all, about $650 million of Andreessen’s $7.1 billion is invested in the two bio-funds.

Read more:6 top VCs give their best 2019 predictions for healthcare, from a biotech correction to a ‘shadow cash economy’ stepping into the light

Why Andreessen Horowitz wants to invest in therapeutics

Andreessen Horowitz general partner Jorge Conde
Andreessen Horowitz

Conde points to two changes that have happened in the past few years that make therapeutics a more worthwhile investment area for the firm.

The first is the better understanding we have of biology. “We can make more sense out of biology now because we can do biology at a higher scale, a higher resolution and higher breadth than has been possible,” Conde said.

The second is the changing way we think about what is a drug. At first, it was all about chemicals that could be used to manipulate the body to treat diseases. Then a few decades ago came protein-based drugs made of living cells.

Now, with cell- and gene-based treatments, that opens up the potential to be more iterative when it comes to developing new treatments. “You’re not taking on single-pathway risk, single-target risk, or molecule risk,” Conde said.

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The idea is to invest in broad new approaches to drug development that might have many potential uses over time. That way, if the first idea or trial doesn’t pan out, there’s still hope that another approach or use might work.

So far, Andreessen Horowitz has invested in companies like synthetic biology company Asimov, but is planning to do more on the therapeutics end. To date, it’s kept its investments to companies like Omada Health, an online platform that helps people manage chronic conditions including Type 2 diabetes, and Devoted Health, a startup that wants to reinvent how we care for aging Americans.

‘One gives you a superpower’

Conde sees some drugmakers as developing new therapeutics, while others are developing entirely new toolkits or platforms that allow for innovative new approaches to medical treatments.

“One gives you knowledge, one gives you a superpower,” Conde said.

Conde is on the hunt mainly for those drug-development tools that he’s dubbed superpowers.

As an example, he points to CRISPR, the gene-editing technology that’s enabled everything from gene-editing babies to designing experimental ways to treat rare eye conditions.

“In a world when you’re increasingly able to program medicine, having these new-world capabilities can have an outsized impact,” Conde said.

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