Eli Lilly & Co. is investing $30 million in a new venture capital firm that will fund minority-owned, early-stage health-care companies.
Unseen Capital Health Fund LP will invest in 50 startups focused on health-care solutions for marginalized communities, Lilly said in a statement. With the drug giant as its anchor investor, the fund aims to raise a total of $100 million from the industry and beyond, and make six to eight investments by summer, said Kayode Owens, Unseen Capital’s 49-year-old general partner.
“Solving for equitable health-care is the challenge of the 21st century,” he said in an interview. “While Covid-19 laid bare the inequities of our health-care system, George Floyd’s killing laid bare the inequities of our justice system. We need to bet on underrepresented founders to be the agent of that change.”
The firm aims to identify startups run by unrepresented communities that “other venture nodes can’t find, don’t think are ready, or aren’t yet out there seeking funding,” Owens said. Those unseen founders, from whom the fund gets its name, have personal insight into the health-care system’s failures from their own experiences, he said.
Healthcare behemoths have publicly reckoned with race amid a pandemic that has disproportionately hit communities of color, along with Floyd’s May death after a policeman knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes during an arrest. The incident led to nationwide protests and contributed to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Large pharmaceutical companies from Pfizer Inc. to Bristol Myers Squibb Co. have responded with pledges to change hiring practices, increase diversity at the executive level and raise minority enrollment in clinical trials. At Lilly — which invests about $1 billion annually in venture capital vehicles — the search for a fund focusing on Black-owned healthcare companies was difficult.
“We know everybody in biotech VC, and nobody is focused on trying to direct capital to underserved populations,” said Joshua Smiley, Lilly’s chief financial officer, who also serves as the executive sponsor for the company’s African-American employee resource group. “There’s not a lot of diversity in the venture funding community, and that cascades down to an underrepresentation of Black founders.”
While they represent 13% of the U.S. population, African Americans account for just 3% of the influential general partners who lead investments at VCs, according to 2018 data from the National Venture Capital Association. Structural forces such as reduced access to capital relative to White counterparts and fewer network connections in the tech industry keep funding for Black entrepreneurs low.
Lilly asked funds to develop proposals for an investment vehicle focused more directly on health equity. Owens emphasized the intersection of digital innovation and the social determinants of health.
Owens, who is Black, has worked in several financial services roles and advises health equity companies with diverse founders. His experience leading a VC fund for the first time has resonated with the leaders of companies he’s aiming to incorporate into the portfolio, many of whom have struggled to get buy-in from traditional investors, who are largely White men.
Owens and Smiley have known each other since they were teammates on Harvard University’s football team more than 25 years ago. The $30 million investment, however, wasn’t spawned from a place of friendship, Smiley said.
“I want to make money and improve the business,” he said. “These companies are going to IPO, or provide a services that Lilly wants to be a part of, like ramping up participation of diverse patients in clinical trials. I would expect good returns here, and other cascading effects on our company.”