Darshana Zaveri: The Rising Star in the Male-Dominated Venture Capital World

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Darshana Zaveri

In an industry where only about six percent of partners are women and only a scant few female partners are charged with investing, Darshana Zaveri is a rising star venture capitalist in the medical devices sector.

Zaveri is a General Partner of Braintree, MA-based Catalyst Health Ventures and a member of Catalyst’s investment committee. She is actively involved in all aspects of fund management, including investments and capital-raising. She has led Catalyst’s investments in Augmenix, Lantos Technologies, nVision Medical, Maxwell Health, Aria CV and Hepregen. She currently represents Catalyst on the Boards of Lantos (past Chair), nVision, Aria CV, Augmenix and Maxwell Health and was actively involved with portfolio company Allegro Diagnostics. In addition, Zaveri has recently become President and CEO of Lantos Technologies.

Zaveri brings to Catalyst over a decade of experience in the healthcare and life sciences industries. Prior to Catalyst, she was an Investigator at Vertex Pharmaceuticals and an integral part of the drug development programs in oncology, metabolic disease, and immunology. Previously she worked at Genome Therapeutics, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, and at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. She received an MPA from Harvard University, a Master in Cell and Molecular Biology from Boston University, and a BS in Biochemistry from Bombay University in Mumbai, India.

Darshana Zaveri

INDIA New England News: Please tell our readers about your work and what you enjoy most about it?

Darshana Zaveri: I am a General Partner at a Venture Capital Firm where I invest in Healthcare focused start-up companies. In this role, I have invested in several start-ups, particularly in the field of interventional oncology and cardiology. Currently, in addition to my venture role, I am also serving as CEO of one of my portfolio companies, an MIT start-up focused on the hearing space.

The most fulfilling part of my job is that every one of our portfolio companies is creating solutions for large, unmet medical needs – for example, one of our most promising start-ups has developed a technology to treat patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension, a progressive deadly disease, mostly affecting women in their 30s. In my job I get to meet amazing entrepreneurs and visionary founders. Their ideas, single-minded dedication and passion to solve problems is so inspiring! I particularly enjoy working with young, first-time founders. It is fun and rewarding to be able to finance their dreams and nurture their ideas into solid companies.

INE: To which charitable, community and professional group do you belong and why?

DZ: I serve as a Catalyst of the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT, which supports a wide range of emerging technologies including biotechnology, biomedical devices, IT, materials and more. The center provides academic founders with small grants to catalyze their ideas from “lab to market”. As part of the program, I mentor founders and help them to develop a business plan, raise funds and spin out as independent companies. The entrepreneurs I mentor often call me their “chief counseling officer” as I help them think through and find ways to tackle many of the challenging issues they face early on.

I am also getting more involved with TIE Boston and the group of people who are trying to establish a stronger presence in Healthcare. In recent times, there has been a steady increase in Indian entrepreneurs starting to tackle global healthcare problems – I look forward to being part of the ecosystem that helps develop that talent further.

INE: What are your hobbies and interests?

DZ: I have learnt Vocal Indian Classical music since I was 5 years old. After coming to the US more than 20 years ago, I continued training first with the late Lilatai Pustake, and then with Swati Panda, both absolutely incredible teachers. These days I am not able to devote as much time as I would like, but I still continue to practice once a week and sing when I can. My husband and I are also avid foodies – we love to experiment with different cuisines, trying new restaurants and cooking together at home.

INE: In what way you feel you have most positively influenced or served the local community and your company/organization and professional field?

DZ: Today, capital investment in early stage, risky medical technologies has almost dried up. I feel my most positive influence has been in first identifying, and then funding truly breakthrough technologies at that nascent stage, where others shirk away. If such funding completely dries up, then important medical innovations will never get to market. Here’s an example – In 2011, I met a very young woman from UC Berkley, who had an idea, a powerpoint presentation and a passion to make a difference for women at high risk of developing ovarian cancer. She had been trying to raise funds for her start-up company for over 2 years when I first met her. I convinced my partners to give her a very small amount of money to develop the concept and test it out. Today she has raised over $20M, has an FDA-cleared device and is close to commercial launch. This is just one of several examples where our early belief and support was critical in bringing transformative products to market.

INE: Your rare talent?

DZ: I have been told that I have a rare ability to take risks and focus exclusively on the future; continue to pursue strongly innovative ideas, even in the face of failures or popular opposition; and the adaptability to solve problems as they arise. I believe these truly are my talents and strengths at the same time, and manifest themselves in different ways – whether it is in funding completely naïve, unproven ideas or putting my faith in young and inexperienced entrepreneurs or taking on the role of CEO for the first time.

Back in 2006, after graduating from Harvard, I turned down high paying corporate jobs in order to join a small, relatively unknown fund, for a lot less in compensation and perks. I did so because I was promised the chance to begin investing right away, with backing and support from the Partners. I knew I wanted to be an investor, wasn’t quite sure how I would get there but determined to begin anyway with a view to the end goal. That risk has paid off extremely well.

INE: Your favorite books?

DZ: My all-time favorite book is “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. Over the decades I have read it many times and each time, I learn something new or find some new meaning in it. For a girl of 19 to have written philosophy like this is mind blowing. I also love the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly “Love in the Time of Cholera” – I was so sad when he passed on this year – artists like him are rare and precious!

INE: Your favorite quotes?

DZ: “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”  I first read this quote when I was 14 and read Pride and Prejudice for the first time – I really thought this quote applied to me then; I still do!

INE: Who inspires you the most?

DZ: My biggest inspiration is my mother for so graciously achieving that elusive “work – life” balance. My earliest memories of her are of an impeccably well-dressed woman ready for work by 7am. Yet, like most Indian working women of her generation, she had already cooked breakfast, lunch and sent us to school, before her professional work day even began. The local trains and buses in Mumbai were — and still are — full of such women, flawlessly attired and not a hair out of place, but you just know how much household work they have already finished and how much more will be done when they get back home in the evening. There is something about that type of stoic simplicity, work ethic, and uncomplaining attitude, which has taught me so much about self-reliance and just getting things done.

These days I am also so inspired by my kids – they do so much more, know so much more and are more self-aware than I ever was at their age! My older daughter is on a rock climbing team – she spends a whole week in the wilderness climbing rocks and getting to heights that would make me dizzy!

INE: The one person you would like to meet and why?

DZ: That would have to be Barack Obama. I am in awe of his character, personality and style! He seems so ambitious, passionate and yet calm at the same time. You can see the fiery determination in his eyes but he is always cool as a cucumber – what a way to be!

INE: Your core value you try to live by?

DZ: At the heart of it, there are 2 values which are most important to me. The first is hard work and determination, and the second, more important one is niceness and humility. There is no upside in rudeness or disregard – being nice to people, regardless of position or stature always has long-term benefits.

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