Shaun Holt is an Advisor to Celesta. He is currently the Chairman and CEO at Alveo. Prior to Alveo, Shaun served as COO for Atonarp and CFO for Berkeley Lights, Inc., where he led the digital cell biology company through its $205M initial public offering. He brings more than 20 years of experience leading finance, accounting, operations, manufacturing, supply chain, product development processes, and customer success functions across various technology and life sciences companies from start-ups to large-capitalization companies.
The Celesta team’s approach and experience allows us to be pretty hands on and directly impactful for our portfolio companies where and when they need the support. In many cases, we're quite active as Board Directors. We leverage our strong networks to help companies bring in talent, advisors, or strategic partners, and help to syndicate deals as well. Our team very often rolls up its sleeves to provide deep technical, operational, or marketing analysis to identify gaps and recommendations to address them.
Why do you believe bio convergence – the merging of biology with engineering and software – is such a compelling investment area right now?
It is a sector that is rich with innovation, and one with massive growth potential when the technology finds a product-market fit and is commercialized successfully. New technologies that can change fundamental paradigms related to human health, such as life science research or patient diagnostics, will always be a compelling area to examine for the right investment opportunities.
This was already the case prior to the pandemic, and even more so afterwards. The demand and potential to improve the patient experience, improve patient outcomes, significantly reduce the costs and time of medical research and healthcare more generally – all of these are more important now than ever. The deeper integration of new technologies into biotech that can introduce more automation, advanced processing capabilities, and other efficiencies is an undeniable value proposition.
So, obviously we are seeing a lot of investment in this space because the market opportunity is very clear. The challenge is finding the highest potential technologies that are truly differentiated and can be successfully moved through the demanding regulatory and commercialization process. With the team at Celesta, we leverage our network to have an early view into the latest and greatest technologies, but also possess the technical, financial, and operational expertise to effectively diligence the opportunities as well.
How do you think VC investors best partner with their portfolio companies? Where can they add the most value?
In my view, the best VC partner is able to work closely with a portfolio company and support them in tangible ways to achieve their goals – above and beyond just capital infusion alone. It's interesting because I think Celesta is probably most differentiated in that context. It's why I was attracted to work with the firm and also why I think Celesta wanted my experience and expertise.
It's not only the funding, it's the people, the expertise, and the willingness to dig in and add value however we can.
What advice you would give to founders?
I would say this: don’t forget to pull up and keep sight of the big picture. It’s very easy in a startup to get mired in the weeds and try to do too many things. The primary challenge that I have seen, by the very nature of being a venture capital-backed early-stage company, is that you’re typically losing money.
In one sense, in early stage companies, your core metric is a very simple dichotomy: is the value you are creating outpacing your cash burn? Obviously, getting that right enables you to raise more capital in order to get products to market and eventually become profitable.
Secondly, I would say to really focus on operations very closely to realize your commercialization potential. Prioritize hiring very strong, experienced operational leaders, because value creation is a challenging feat that, again, can easily pull you into the weeds. You need to develop a differentiated technology, within a significant market, ensure customer requirements are met, and dial this in as quickly as possible.
All of this requires standing up a rigorous product development and portfolio management process so you can maintain visibility into timelines, resources, commercialization dependencies, and make tradeoffs where needed. Not to mention all the many other related factors that will impact your value creation vs. capital spend trajectory.
The companies that get this balance right can build great products much more quickly, and of course that very often translates to great success for the founders.