- Deep Nishar is the senior managing partner for SoftBank’s Vision Fund.
- Nishar has overseen many of the fund’s investments in life sciences and healthcare companies.
- Founders describe Nishar as a curious investor who applies discipline when vetting investments.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The next phase of computing won’t happen on the internet as we know it, and it won’t be beamed down from hyper-efficient microchips powering an army of private satellites. It will be inside the human body.
When Deep Nishar started learning about genomics a decade ago, the budding field of study remained largely academic. But when he looked at what it cost to sequence the human genome, a complex feat of scientific advancement, he noticed that it resembled the foundational principle of computer science called Moore’s law. The theory said that computing power doubles every two years, and is the principle on which modern computer technology has flourished.
But Nishar, a technologist and entrepreneur by trade, didn’t have any experience in biotechnology. So he signed up for online courses, read through dense academic textbooks, and attended research conferences where he could meet with the people designing what he felt would be the future of technology.
“When I saw that curve, I’m like, this is going to be the biggest thing I’m going to see in my lifetime,” Nishar told Insider. “And I better learn what it is because I’m not ready to retire anytime soon.”
Nishar, who previously held executive roles at Google and LinkedIn, knew the best way to learn about any new subject was to put money at risk, he said. So he started investing his personal funds in companies while he was on a sabbatical from his last role at LinkedIn.
Nishar is deliberate and thorough when evaluating investments
Nishar is now the senior managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers for SoftBank’s Vision Fund, the kingmaker among Silicon Valley startups that has invested roughly $116.7 billion across its two funds.
Unlike the boisterous fund leader Masayoshi Son, Nishar’s investment style is deliberate, thorough, and curious, founders told Insider.
That style is paying off. Nishar’s investments in 12 healthcare and biotech companies make up some of the highest returns for SoftBank’s investment practice.
“Deep is very deliberate,” 10x Genomics cofounder and CEO Serge Saxonov told Insider. 10x Genomics was one of Nishar’s first investments after joining SoftBank.
“The stories I read about Masa, Deep is the opposite of that. He’s deliberate and thoughtful,” Saxonov said.
Insider spoke with Nishar in addition to the founders of three companies he’s invested in.
Now, Nishar is navigating the changing ways investors are backing biotechnology companies. The industry was one of just a handful that actually saw more investment during the coronavirus pandemic than before. But the barrage of headlines and nine-figure funding rounds have also invited increased scrutiny from public and private investors as well as the annual question of whether Silicon Valley is, again, in a bubble.
CB Insights analyst Kedar Karkare, who has a doctorate in evolutionary genetics, said the increased attention can be both a benefit and a drawback for investors and founders in the industry. Although valuations will increase and more investors will flood the ecosystem with fresh funding, firms that haven’t added experts like Nishar risk overinflating the market.
“The noise is not as significant when tech investors are following traditional biotech investors,” Karkare said, and indicated that SoftBank was often opting to let the more traditional biotech or life sciences investors lead rounds. “But when we see non-biotech investors lead the deals, it could be a signal that there is more noise than signal in the space and that ratio has changed.”
Nishar’s steady hand and passion for learning will likely influence SoftBank’s investment strategy over the coming months after having navigated around a series of public catastrophes for the fund in the implosions of coworking startup WeWork, failed pizza robot maker Zume, and construction startup Katerra. The pressure will be on Nishar, and his cohort of biotechnology and life sciences portfolio companies, to avoid public spectacle and continue building companies that could become the arbiters of Nishar’s new internet.
Let him know how he can be helpful
Nishar’s first company was a flop.
He and his cofounder Ranjan Das moved out to San Francisco from Boston in 2000 to work on the company, which made enterprise software predating the now-ubiquitous cloud infrastructure. After the market crashed following September 11, 2001, the company was in trouble. The tech bubble had burst, and Nishar made the difficult decision to shut it down in 2002.
That experience set the stage for Nishar’s career. He went on to launch and lead efforts around the Android mobile operating system at Google from 2003 until 2009 and ran the product division at Linkedin until 2014. Both stints occurred early on in the companies’ life cycles, and Nishar got a taste for the fast growth coming out of Silicon Valley.
Instead of the traditional path to investing that routes through investment banking, Nishar instead took what is now known as the “operator” route. Prior to joining SoftBank’s investment team in 2015, he had never professionally invested. Instead, he built his reputation as a diligent executive and engineer in the trenches, so to speak, of Silicon Valley’s tech companies.
“He has the entrepreneur’s perspective, which is different than a professional investor,” Seer founder and CEO Omid Farokhzad told Insider.
Nishar invested in the startup, which created a way for researchers to measure and analyze proteins, in December prior to its IPO.
At SoftBank, Nishar leads the investment team’s investments in North America, but has a particular focus on enterprise technology, biotechnology, and life sciences. Although he doesn’t have operator experience outside of technology, his self-taught introduction to the industry was enough to keep Nishar’s interest.
“He’s almost like a genius in picking life science winners,” Farokhzad said.
Nishar invests across the biotech spectrum
In addition to 10x Genomics and Seer, Nishar has invested in companies in biotech and life sciences that he said represent every piece of the drug discovery and development process.
Just as engineers have created companies at different stages of computing — for example, Amazon’s foray into cloud software compared to its e-commerce storefront — so too, will biotech companies.
For genomics, a company like 10x represents the infrastructure layer since it builds software others can use to research or analyze the human genome. Nishar said he rarely invests in multiple companies solving problems at the same part of the development process and waited years between investing in 10x Genomics and another genomics startup that also operates at the earliest stage the same way 10x does.
Nishar’s strategy has run counter to other investors’ at SoftBank, who are known to back several startups in the same industry in the hopes that one will ultimately become successful. The practice is fairly common among venture capitalists because most startups ultimately fail.
Both Farokhzad and Saxonov said that they took particular pride in catching Nishar’s attention as an investor. Both founders knew of Nishar’s reputation beforehand and knew that he had done an ample amount of research in their industries prior to taking a meeting with them. They said he often took weeks, if not months, to read up on the science behind the two companies before he decided to invest.
Farokhzad said he was so willing to get Nishar on board at Seer that the company restructured its IPO, a major financial event for any company, just to get Nishar in as a private investor.
“There were only a handful of times that deal structure happened in technology companies, and it was never done in life sciences,” Farokhzad said of the unusual dual financing. “It was solely because I wanted him deeply involved with Seer.” Nishar recently joined Seer’s board.
Nishar’s future depends on his ‘spidey sense’
Investing on behalf of SoftBank has its perks. Rarely do investors need to outbid other firms due to the two funds’ massive tranche of capital, which has been enough to complete multiple private and public financings of at least $100 million.
Nishar said he operates fairly independently and has the autonomy to make investments along with two health-tech-specific team members, Dr. Travis Murdoch and Elena Viboch, although his investments ultimately go before the investing committee like all other teams. It is, however, a departure from the technology investing team that often has to involve Masayoshi Son directly for approval.
The coronavirus pandemic has made biotech a hot area to invest in. More investors are hoping to get in on the booming industry, and many have more funds than ever to better compete for favorable deal terms.
Nishar and SoftBank have the added advantage of investing in public markets, through the Investment Advisers division, in addition to private companies through Vision Funds I and II.
Seer went public in 2020 and counts Nishar as a board member. Nishar also works with Vir Biotechnology, another public company that has been on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic with its antibody treatments.
Reaping pandemic-induced public returns is a perk that few, if any, private investors get to see. That Nishar was able to stay on after the company went public was appealing to both Farokhzad and Saxonov.
To succeed in the newly crowded markets, then, Nishar will only have to double down on seeking out companies monetizing breakthrough science and upending how people receive healthcare going forward.
An introvert by nature, Nishar said he used to enjoy going into companies’ labs to watch the research and development teams work, something he is eager to get back to in the future, instead of sitting in on pitch meetings.
What he can’t lose, though, is nearly 20 years of experience in working with technology and life sciences companies and seeing what exactly success at scale looks like. That experience has created a “spidey sense,” Nishar said, that helps him realize when he is working with a revolutionary company.
“You start getting that spidey sense, if you will, that tingling feeling in the back of your neck, that something interesting is happening here,” Nishar said. “But look, the honest truth is, you don’t know until you really know. Right? You can have an inkling that you have something exciting and interesting, but you have to look under the hood.”