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Health Care and Venture Capital: An Uncertain Outlook

When most people hear “health care” today, their minds automatically pivot to the national health care debate dominating the election season. Many venture capitalists, however, are thinking about their next target in the broad health care and biotechnology industry. Investment in the sector, which includes companies developing “medical devices, diagnostic [platforms], technology based healthcare services, life science tools,”1 and pharmaceuticals, has been on the rise. In 2011, venture capital investment in biotechnology reached $4.82 billion, with medical devices and healthcare services financings realizing gains of 17% and 41%, respectively, year-over-year.2

What’s behind the uptick in a sector “long shunned by venture-capital investors?”3 Two key explanations are optimism over “new U.S. laws that could speed up drug approval in key areas”4 and the increasing role of software in health care. The current regulatory climate makes it a difficult and lengthy process to receive FDA approval for pharmaceuticals and medical devices.5 As the founder of a short-lived medical device startup, I can attest to the difficulties that FDA approval can bring a similarly-based business – our startup’s projections, for example, indicated that simply becoming eligible for 510(k) clearance (which is necessary to market certain categories of medical devices in the United States) would cost $20 million and take at least 5 years. The FDA has since established the Center Science Council to improve the predictability of its decision-making on new innovations,6 and the response from venture capitalists has been cautiously positive.7

Entrepreneurs remain hopeful, as increased software penetration, beyond electronic medical records, exposes new opportunities in the field. Venture firms have begun “broadening the types of businesses they consider part of the life-sciences field”8 to include those creating software solutions to many of healthcare’s most pressing problems. These firms aren’t comparable to those such as Google or Facebook when they were still startups, but that’s a good thing – venture capitalists such as Kevin Kinsella of Avalon Ventures recognize that “every therapeutic idea or product is a big idea”9 and has a better chance of disrupting a field still relatively foreign to the Internet. Cyrus Massoumi, founder of ZocDoc, a startup which allows users to find and book appointments online, finds the current financing landscape superior to that of years prior. In 2007, the reaction to ZocDoc’s pitch was “less, ‘Good idea,’ and more, ‘Good god, you’re crazy.’”10 In the five years since, Massoumi and his team have raised $95 million, culminating in a $75 million Series C last year with DST Global and Goldman Sachs.11

While some parties are optimistic for biotech’s resurgence, “[p]ricing pressures, slower economic growth and greater regulatory scrutiny”12 continue to make investment difficult to come by. Ernst & Young’s global life sciences practice released a report two weeks ago finding capital harder to come by for younger companies in the sector.13 According to their numbers, venture capital investment in biotechnology remains substantially lower than the $5.40 billion peak reached in 2006-2007,14 and the situation may not be improving to the degree that 2011’s numbers suggest. The data available so far for 2012 support their pessimistic stance. In Q2 2012, biotech companies received $697 million, or 42% less money in deals than the same quarter a year prior, the lowest amount seen by the National Venture Capital Association “since the first quarter of 2003.”15 Most affected by these trends are the small, young startups hurting for cash, especially those on the software-side of things. While more established companies, such as Merck, who launched its own $250 million venture fund in 2011, “invest in [early-stage] innovation with a portion of the dollars they would have invested in their own R&D,”16 these dollars end up at companies immersed in the pharmaceutical sector – the bread and butter of companies like Merck. Nevertheless, the experience of ZocDoc and others in the field show that substantial venture money is still out there – only now it’s being packaged in smaller, but smarter, deals.17


  2. Sarah McBride, Venture firms see signs of rebirth in life sciences, REUTERS (Sep. 24, 2012, 2:42 PM),

  3. Id. 

  4. Id. 

  5. Kate Greenwood, Venture Capitalists Complain of ‘Regulatory Challenges,’ FDA Responds, HEALTH REFORM WATCH (Dec. 20, 2011), (“The venture capitalists blame ‘regulatory challenges,’ primarily ‘the hostile FDA.’”). 

  6. See CDRH Center Science Council FAQs, U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION (Mar. 31, 2011),

  7. See Greenwood, supra note 5. 

  8. McBride, supra note 2. 

  9. McBride, supra note 2. 

  10. Cyrus Massoumi, Healthcare Momentum: Our Shared Responsibility, THE HUFFINGTON POST (Oct. 4, 2012),

  11. ZocDoc, TECHCRUNCH,

  12. Susan Kelly, Venture capital for medical technology harder to come by: report, REUTERS (Oct. 2, 2012, 1:23 AM),

  13. Id. 

  14. Id. 

  15. John Carroll, New biotech deals scrape record low as VC groups lose steam, FIERCEBIOTECH (July 19, 2012),

  16. McBride, supra note 2. 

  17. See McBride, supra note 2.