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Associate Spotlight: Blair Willette

Multiple people in business casual clothes stand around engaged in pleasant conversation, in a room with dark brown wood background.
Blair Willette, left, mingles with Duke Capital Partners members, associates, and founders at a recent social event.

While earning her Pharmacology Ph.D. at Duke University, Blair Willette decided that staying in academia was just part of her journey. To accomplish her dream of bringing a drug to market, she wanted more experience learning about and interacting with biotech startups. Having just finished her time at Duke, Blair Willette, Ph.D. reflects on her time as an Associate at Duke Capital Partners and looks forward to the future.

As a Ph.D. student, how did you develop an interest in venture capital and entrepreneurship?

I pursued a Ph.D. in Pharmacology because I dreamed of bringing a drug to market. I wanted to leverage an understanding of the critical drivers of disease to develop more effective therapeutics. However, during my Ph.D. I noticed that, despite being the main source of scientific discovery, findings uncovered in academia are often slow in translating to the clinic. This isn’t a reflection on the quality of the science (I’d argue that no one validates a target to the level of an academic). Rather, academia often lacks the resources and experience needed to quickly bring findings into a commercial space.

Noticing this, I sought opportunities to learn how biotech and pharmaceutical companies address the lag between an initial discovery and delivering a drug successfully to market. I built a network of colleagues and Duke alumni to understand the positions pharmacology Ph.D.s hold across the drug industry. I also studied biopharma markets and venture creation at the Fuqua School of Business. Through those experiences, I identified the power of biotech startups to discover, create, partner, and build at incredible speeds to efficiently reach their customers.

Furthermore, I am inspired by the passion of entrepreneurs and the potential of their ideas to impact society. Combining my research training and commercial mindset, I recognized that I could effectively translate the value of innovation in biotech startups to investors to help early-stage companies succeed. Through venture capital, I can find passionate entrepreneurs, communicate the value of their discoveries, support their success, and generate an impact. This is how I will use my Ph.D. to bring a drug to market.  

What led you to join Duke Capital Partners? What are the moments and experiences here that you want to highlight?

I was introduced to Duke Capital Partners (at the time, Duke Angel Network) through venture partner Dave Neal, when he was presenting at a business fundamentals course offered through the Duke Graduate Academy. I was impressed by the number of startups DCP supports across diverse markets. Of course, I was drawn to the innovative technology of the biotech/medical device portfolio, but I was also fascinated learning more about consumer good markets and SaaS companies. I joined DCP because I knew it would be an invaluable opportunity to learn how to evaluate startups on their team, product, and business plan. 

After being with DCP for over a year and half, this team’s mentorship has been one of the most impactful experiences during my training at Duke. The time and energy that the DCP Operating Team gives to our members, founders, and associates is beyond impressive. They have taught me how to dissect companies, think strategically, support relationships, and form strong connections with founders. I have greatly appreciated their guidance on navigating opportunities and their advice on how to overcome hurdles. Conversations with the DCP Operating Team and the other associates helped me learn about different market opportunities and innovative business strategies. Finally, conversations with Duke entrepreneurs continually expands my views on problems needing to be fixed and how to be the most effective in helping them. 

How does your research relate to your role as a Duke Capital Partners Associate? 

My research background is in drug discovery and development. The focus of my Ph.D. was on a family of cell receptors that are targets for 30% of all FDA-approved drugs. I worked to better understand the localization of their signaling in cells to inform the next generation of drug development.

The techniques that I used in my research are applicable across many biotech companies. Understanding concepts from gene editing approaches to animal model design has been incredibly helpful to evaluate what a company has performed and what outstanding risks remain. Additionally, I believe that one of the most important outcomes of a Ph.D. is the ability to think critically. The Ph.D. trains you to dive into a topic, identify the pain points, predict a solution, understand the outstanding risk, and determine the potential impact. That’s the recipe for evaluating startups.

Can you speak a little bit about your internship experience at KdT Ventures?

After learning the fundamentals of venture capital from Duke Capital Partners, I wanted an internship experience to fully immerse myself in a venture capital career. I not only wanted to learn more about biotech startup investing, but I also wanted to get my foot in the door with biotech VC firms.

I networked with the local Durham VCs that invest primarily in biotech to learn about what they look for in potential investments as well as new employees. During that time, I connected with Phil Grayeski, who is a partner at KdT Ventures, through a mentor in my department. KdT Ventures is an early-stage biotech investing firm believing that next-generation computation layered with biochemical advances will build out the next physical layer of the world. They invest across therapeutics, drug delivery platforms, agriculture technology, and biomanufacturing.

Prior to the internship, I had performed some diligence projects part-time with KdT during the year and appreciated the breadth of science I was diving into. During my part-time role, I saw that this young firm was carving an exciting path through their success investing across their funds. In pursuing an internship, I wanted to expand on my due-diligence skills and learn how to source deals, weigh the different opportunities, and support portfolio companies.

My internship experience with KdT Ventures was incredible, invigorating, intriguing, and inspiring. While I learned many skills, my most important takeaway was how to deliver a clear, concise analysis following a deep dive into a new market, therapeutic indication, etc. Being able to successfully digest information, outline the critical factors, and present your well-informed opinion is necessary to effectively communicate your work and earn its value. 

What are your current short term and long term career goals? 

I completed my Ph.D. in May 2023. Following graduation, I am thrilled to say I am joining KdT Ventures as an Associate. Building upon the skills I learned at Duke Capital Partners, I am excited to continue my growth in venture capital and search for innovative startups with impactful scientific discoveries.