Laia Crespo is an investment manager for Ysios Capital Partners, an independent venture capital firm in Spain that focuses on health care and biotech companies. She is responsible for identifying emerging companies that offer good scientific and business opportunities. When she took the job last September, she was thrown in at the deep end: Within 15 minutes of passing the door, she was given a company to assess. "I didn't feel ready to do that," she admits.

But Crespo was much better prepared for the job than she realized. While searching for the right career path, Crespo, who is now 35, accumulated experience as an industry researcher in companies of various sizes, from a new spin-off to big multinationals, and as a business-development analyst. She earned an MBA. She rose to each new challenge, and each time she enjoyed the experience.

A taste of academia

(Courtesy, Laia Crespo)
Laia Crespo

The prospect of discovering new knowledge drew Crespo to research. Trained as a musician, she saw academia as a professional space where she would be able to express her creativity.

Crespo chose chemistry for her first degree, at the University of Barcelona, finding in the discipline a pleasing balance of theory and experimentation. Upon graduating in 1997, she joined an organic chemistry group at the same university that was focusing on the synthesis and biophysical and structural characterization of proteins. Under the supervision of Fernando Albericio and Ernest Giralt, Crespo made peptide dendrimers, which were "very fashionable" in the 1990s for their medical potential, Crespo says.

Working in a large group, she was left to fend for herself. "That was frustrating at the beginning," but within a couple of years she had synthesized the dendrimers. She then used them to encapsulate a mainstream antibiotic and, with fluorescence microscopy, visualized their entry into human cells.

"It was a demanding project," Albericio says. "All her Ph.D. was overcoming problems." Crespo graduated summa cum laude in 2002, having published five peer-reviewed papers -- two as first author -- and seen her work on the cover of the European Journal of Organic Chemistry. "It was a very complete and very well-rounded Ph.D.," she says.

It was also "nice and enjoyable," she adds -- yet halfway through the project she made up her mind to leave academia. "I like projects which are more defined and [where you have] more control," she says.

Industry experience abroad

After graduating, Crespo says that she and her partner -- Xavier Salvatella, who was a Ph.D. student in the same Barcelona group -- "started to look for locations where he could have a successful and challenging postdoc and I could go and work for industry." Salvatella joined the lab of Chris Dobson at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Crespo took a job in the biotech spin-off called Spirogen, which had just been launched by academics at the University of London and University College London with the aim of developing DNA-targeting therapeutics. Crespo was charged with setting up a combinatorial chemistry unit for the quick production and analysis of peptides.

The experience at Spirogen was not that different from academia; the company was even located on academic premises in London. "That was a nice way of leaving academia and starting my first job in industry," Crespo says. It was also an important steppingstone to a job at the U.K. branch of Swedish company Medivir, which was located in the Cambridge biotech cluster. In a place like Cambridge, which is crowded with good scientists, there was "no ... way I could have got a job" without previous industry experience and without being based in the region, Crespo says.

Crespo joined Medivir in January 2004. There, she set up a platform for the design of new chemical entities and synthesized protein inhibitors that could work as a treatment for osteoporosis. Learning about drug discovery and development from scratch was "very challenging," she says, but she liked the clear research process and objective. She also liked her new working environment. She talked to biologists, computational scientists, patent lawyers, and business-development people and worked alongside the intellectual property team. All this was good.

Yet Crespo had taken an interest in entrepreneurship and venture capital. Realizing that she needed to differentiate herself from "the rest of the scientists in the world" if she expected to compete for non-research positions, she decided to go back to school for an MBA degree.

Crespo was admitted to the Cambridge Judge Business School, and after a brief stint as a temporary process scientist at UCB-Celltech, a global pharma company located in Cambridge, she began her studies in September 2007. Crespo quickly made up for her lack of knowledge in finance and economics -- partly by reading the newspapers. "I learned a lot about how the world works ... and [gained] a broad idea of how to understand dynamics in economy," she says.

Her systematic approach and ability to dive in at the heart of any problem was a big advantage, she says. Soft skills proved more difficult. She worked hard on her communication, people, and project-management skills. Her MBA experience also gave her a tougher skin. "You become more creative, very optimistic [from] all the positivism that you have to use to survive there, because you are surrounded with very smart people ... and you have to compete in a nice way with them for the same job," she says.

Crespo did her final-year MBA project in the Technology Transfer Department of the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona. There, she compared the Cambridge biotech cluster with the emerging cluster in Barcelona. She got to know key people in Spain -- including the people at Ysios Capital Partners. She had learned about the venture capital firm while reading a newspaper in Cambridge. "I thought, 'these are the guys.' "

Heading toward venture capital

Crespo returned to Spain in October 2008 when Salvatella, her partner, took a group-leader position at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) Barcelona. Ysios Capital Partners was not recruiting. Crespo joined Janssen-Cilag, a Johnson & Johnson pharma company based in Madrid, as a new-business-development analyst for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. This gave her experience developing, forecasting, and financing models and negotiating with other companies.

She enjoyed that job too, but while she was there she contacted and surveyed venture capitalists in the country, learning about their differences and studying their strategies. "The whole venture capital industry is very new in Spain, let alone in biotech," Crespo says. She kept her eyes on Ysios Capital Partners, regularly expressing her interest by e-mail. Over time, she met everyone on the team -- and when a job came open a year later, they offered it to her.

Today, Crespo's job "is about asking questions, collecting information, getting a global picture of the company" to see if it would be a good investment, she says. "You are going to put somebody's money there. You have to be diligent with everything -- the people, the finance." Her decisions are based on many factors, including gut feeling. "It's not only about the science. It's about, do you like the enterprise?" It's "about managing the risk and ... not being afraid," she says.

Six months in, "I am very happy. I really like my job." She enjoys the fast pace and the need to improvise. "I don't have two equal days," she says. All the time "there is the phone ringing and lots of things happening. It's very hectic."

Back in her time as a Ph.D. student, Crespo was one of very few students in Spain who dared to venture beyond academia, says Albericio, her former Ph.D. supervisor. At each step she accumulated the experience she needed to take the next step, and she was never afraid to abandon a job to try something new. Her career decisions were "totally right ... from the beginning to the end," he says.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.