From stem cell biologist to leading venture capitalist: Meet Elaine Stead
Completing a PhD in biochemistry is no small feat, nor is filing a patent that is licensed to a biotechnology company.
Dr Elaine Stead accomplished both before deciding that being a research scientist wasn’t for her: it was too lonely. “I could go a week without speaking to anyone else in my department,” the stem-cell biologist says.
She describes the realisation that life in the lab wasn’t for her as “disappointing” but it was no road block. Because of her experience with filing a patent, Stead, who is now the head of venture capital firm Blue Sky, was familiar with the commercial side of research science. “That opened up a new realm of career opportunities for me,” she says.
In late 2005 she launched her first venture, Reproductive Health Science, which was a medical device start up focused on developing a pre-natal diagnostics tool. Brisbane’s Terra Rossa Capital provided the start-up cash which gave Stead her first proper taste for venture capital, and she liked it.
Two years later, when RHS was at the clinical development stage, Stead stepped away. She worked on the commercialisation arm of the University of Adelaide and after that she was headhunted by CM Capital Investments, which was one of the biggest venture capital outfits in the country.
“I haven’t looked back,” she says. “I still use my scientific training because we look at healthcare opportunities but science also taught me to be analytical, objective and problem solve. Science is a problem solving based job which is predominately what we do now – we help businesses solve problems.”
She says venture capitalists herald from an array of different industries and professionals but there is one skill set they typically share: problem solving and EQ.
“It doesn’t get talked about a lot but the emotional intelligence is critical. What we do is very relationship driven – with board members, investors, potential partners.”
Stead has been involved with backing some serious winners: Shoes of Prey, PetCircle and Vinomofo are among the success stories she’s been a part of.
“At a basic level we sit on the board of the businesses we invest in,” Stead explains. “We’re involved in strategic decisions of the business. We don’t want to meddle but where we can add value we do. If that’s making strategic introductions or rolling up our sleeves and getting in the business to help with a project, or design an international sales strategy, we’ll do that.”
Broadly her time is split between looking for new opportunities, helping the businesses they invest in and fundraising.
She is currently raising money for a new $200 million fund and is frank that her work life balance is a work in progress.
“My job relies on a lot of travel, long days, early starts so it’s a constant battle. It’s a taxing role and I’m a work in progress to maintain my health and sanity.”
That being said she wouldn’t swap her work for anything.
“It’s a privilege. We get to help smart, committed, dedicated entrepreneurs build the businesses and companies they want to build and run. Often that has an amazing social and economic effect,” Stead says.