Bringing Experience, Energy and Humility to UArizona Startups: A Q&A with Mentor-in-Residence Manisha Narasimhan

Nov. 19, 2021
Manisha Narasimhan head shot

Manisha Narasimhan’s resume tells the story of a young woman driven to succeed. As the newest Mentor-in-Residence with Tech Launch Arizona, Narasimhan works with University of Arizona startup teams working to bring UArizona inventions from the lab to the marketplace.

She brings over sixteen years of experience working with leading pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to the job and has extensive scientific and capital markets expertise. After receiving her Ph.D. in molecular biology from New York University, she held a variety of positions with companies like Canaccord Genuity, Piper Jaffray and Cambell Alliance Group, Inc. At these companies, she gained experience in strategic development, investor relations and equity research. Most recently she served as Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, Portfolio Innovation and Investor Relations at Allergan, and is currently on the board of directors for Cytonus Therapeutics, Inc.

“I’m excited to welcome Manisha to her new role at TLA,” said Bruce Burgess, director of venture development for TLA. “She brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and energy to the Venture Development team.  I know she will be a tremendous resource to our university startup activities.” 

TLA: Tell us about your experience as a founder of a company. What drove you to be a founder and what did you learn?

NARASIMHAN: My last stint at a big company was at Allergan. In 2019, they were acquired by AbbVie and the transaction closed in 2020. I had always wanted to do something more entrepreneurial, where I would be placing a bet on myself, and this seemed like the perfect time to make that move. I teamed up with Brent Saunders, the former CEO and Chairman of Allergan, and we co-founded Vesper Healthcare Acquisition Corporation. We went public and raised $460 million in three action-packed months. We then acquired a company called HydraFacial; it has since been rebranded as The Beauty Health Company and trades under the ticker SKIN. What I learned as a co-founder – especially since we were a small team of two – is that you are best positioned if you get comfortable wearing multiple hats, even when some of those hats may be outside your comfort zone. In my startup, I had many responsibilities: helping prepare financial statements; running diligence on potential transactions; negotiating transactions; presenting compelling targets to the Board; and writing press releases. There were some areas where I brought expertise, and others where I had to learn quickly. It was intense, but I enjoyed it. It also gave me a first-hand appreciation of how startup founders must be nimble, creative, and agile in solving problems – both foreseen and unforeseen.

TLA: You also spent a number of years with large biotech companies. How was that different from the world of startups and what insights did you gain that contributed to your entrepreneurial success?

NARASIMHAN: My first job at a biotech company was with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. The company was public and had about 1,000 employees when I joined, but the operating ethos was very much like a startup. When a task had to be done, you rolled your sleeves up and got to work. The company didn’t hire a lot of external consultants. By the time I left, Regeneron had grown in all aspects. It had many more employees, several approved drugs, a wider geographic presence, and a market cap that was approximately 10 times greater than when I started. Along with all this growth came the need for more process, which meant that sometimes it took longer to make decisions. Experiencing this transition was an invaluable lesson, since I was able to observe the pluses and minuses as an organization grows and scales up.

TLA: You call yourself a “senior leader,” and have served in that capacity numerous times. What qualities are essential for someone to successfully lead a startup like the ones you’re working with at Tech Launch Arizona?

NARASIMHAN: The non-negotiables are intelligence, integrity, and energy. For startups, you also need persistence and tons of it, because the path to success is most likely not linear. Another important trait is open-mindedness. Each startup will encounter its own set of bumps and challenges and what worked in one situation may not work in another, so it’s helpful to keep a creative and open mind in approaching solutions. Finally, any great leader must have humility – egos need to be left at the door for the good of the startup and the team.

TLA: You completed your Ph.D. in 2006 – not all that long ago, considering what you’ve accomplished since then. At this point in your career, why have you chosen to be a mentor to entrepreneurial innovators and researchers?

NARASIMHAN: I came to the U.S. for graduate school when I was 22 years old. I knew I wanted to pursue science, but I had given practically no thought to a career path. I attribute a large part of my achievements to the benefit of having the guidance and advice of mentors at various stages in my life. This is an opportunity for me to give back. It is enormously satisfying when you see others succeed. Being involved with TLA is also a great way for me to be plugged into the innovation ecosystem at the University of Arizona.

TLA: What was your greatest success as an entrepreneur and what did you learn? And your greatest failure and lessons learned?

NARASIMHAN: I’ll paraphrase a Nelson Mandela quote which I think about often, which is that one never loses. You either win or you learn. Launching Vesper Healthcare and raising close to $1 billion was very exhilarating. The post-business combination company is now among the best performing SPACs. And that is an achievement that makes me happy.

But there have been times in my professional life when I have misjudged risk and have had to deal with setbacks. As painful as those times are, I try to look at those situations objectively to see what I can learn.

TLA: You are clearly someone with an amazing drive to succeed. But success also takes balance. What does your life look like when you’re not at work? Do you have family or hobbies you focus on? What are your perspectives on maintaining a healthy balance in the rhythm of your life?

NARASIMHAN: I believe in a work-life continuum, rather than a balance, which would imply that both elements are even. What I mean is that some days work takes precedence, and you may not see much of your family, while other times you may have an important family event or celebration or just a day spent without being distracted by work. I strive to be fully present wherever I am.

My husband and I have two children who are seven and nine years old. We moved to Arizona last year, so we spend weekends exploring Tucson and enjoying this unbelievable weather. I play tennis whenever I can. I started playing golf since moving here, but that has been, categorically, one of the most frustrating experiences in my life. But I have not given up yet!