Zymeworks co-founder, former CEO Ali Tehrani joins Amplitude Ventures as venture partner

Tehrani aims to leverage his Zymeworks learnings to help other Canadian biotech firms grow.

Precision health-focused investment fund Amplitude Ventures has strengthened its team by adding biotech veteran Ali Tehrani as a venture partner.

The move comes shortly after Tehrani stepped down as president and CEO of Vancouver-based Zymeworks, amid what has become a difficult environment for the stocks of early-stage drug developers.

“The Zymeworks, the AbCelleras, the Clementias, they’ve paved the path for more to happen.”
-Ali Tehrani
 

Tehrani co-founded and led Zymeworks for over 18 years, taking the British Columbian biotech company from inception through clinical validation and a New York Stock Exchange debut.

In an interview with BetaKit, Tehrani said he hopes to take what he learned building Zymeworks’ business, navigating the clinical development process, and the network he’s established over the years to help other Canadian biotech founders and companies grow with Amplitude.

“I’ve gone end-to-end,” said Tehrani. “I’ve gone from the company that I started with two people all the way to 500 people, from platform to pre-clinical, to clinical, to pre-commercial. I’ve raised between $500 and $750 million depending on what stage you’re talking about. I’ve seen clinical development. I’ve seen licensing deals with Big Pharma. I’ve seen good markets. I’ve seen bad markets. I’ve got deep relationships with private venture capital and [investors] on the public side.”

Tehrani joins Amplitude during an interesting time for the Canadian life sciences sector, which has seen significant growth and major success stories like AbCellera and Deep Genomics, but faces headwinds as high early-pandemic investor demand for biotech stocks has waned as COVID-19 begins to subside.

Tehrani, who has served as a member of Amplitude’s board of advisors since 2020, has a PhD in microbiology from the University of British Columbia and a masters in biochemistry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He co-founded Zymeworks in 2003 with a focus on computational protein modelling and engineering.

Spun out of BDC in 2018, Amplitude is an over $200 million CAD venture fund. Its thesis is based on supporting three regional clusters in Canada’s precision health ecosystem: next-generation imaging and intelligent medical devices in Toronto, AI and machine learning in Toronto and Montréal, and targeted and cellular therapy in Vancouver.

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Tehrani’s relationship with Amplitude co-founders and partners Dion Madsen and Jean-Francois Pariseau dates back years. Tehrani first met Madsen in 2008 while courting California VC firms with Zymeworks, and became acquainted with Pariseau through his work with BDC.

Pariseau and Madsen later invested in Zymeworks through BDC Capital. Madsen said they were first attracted to Zymeworks because of Tehrani’s entrepreneurial drive and “strength of the science” underpinning the company’s approach, describing Tehrani as “a brilliant scientist and business builder.”

“Ali’s dream, at that time, was to build Zymeworks into one of those foundational companies out on the west coast,” Madsen told BetaKit. “It was through that discussion that we got a little bit more clarity about the potential of biotech across Canada, but more specifically about the possibility of building a cluster of investments around targeted and cellular therapy, and turning Vancouver into a world class centre.”

Tehrani stepped down from Zymeworks earlier this year after spending more than 18 years at the helm. He told The Globe and Mail his departure had nothing to do with the company’s falling stock price, which hit a three-year low in January during what has been a rough patch for publicly-traded biotech firms.

RELATED: Canadian biotech leader Clarissa Desjardins secures $63 million CAD for Congruence Therapeutics

“I’ve always believed … that if you build something meaningful, that it should outlive you,” Tehrani told BetaKit. “I really believe that is the test of greatness, of longevity. So I hope I’ve done that.”

“I should have actually stepped down probably a few years ago,” he added, noting, “But here I am, and I’m extremely happy to be part of the [Amplitude] team.”

Pariseau described Tehrani’s “patient focus” as “a perfect fit with Amplitude’s ethos.”

“He’s one of the very few people who brought a life sciences company over the $2 billion mark, and we want to be able to benefit from that,” said Pariseau.

Tehrani said he admires Amplitude’s “big ambitions and big goals,” adding that he and the firm share a vision “that Canada’s biotech ecosystem can compete globally.”

RELATED: Deep Genomics secures $226 million CAD led by SoftBank as it scales AI drug discovery platform

Tehrani, who will be based in Vancouver, will mentor some of Amplitude’s existing portfolio companies, and help to start some new ones that the firm has in its pipeline.

Since Madsen, Pariseau, and Tehrani first connected, Canada’s biotech sector has seen a lot of growth. But the groundwork for what you see today was laid long ago.

“Companies like Zymeworks and AbCellera were like a decade overnight success,” said Madsen. “It takes 10 years and then all of a sudden your moment hits. I think there are companies that are being built today that are going to have that success, but it still takes time.”

Tehrani said, “the Zymeworks, the AbCelleras, the Clementias, they’ve paved the path for more to happen.” According to Tehrani, in Canadian biotech “you used to hear, ‘that’s a one-off, and that’s a one-off.”

But now, he believes the country’s biotech success stories have laid a foundation for up-and-coming firms like Precision NanoSystems and Deep Genomics to build on. “This is sort of the next class that has been standing on the shoulders of previous giants and then becoming giants themselves,” said Tehrani.

Feature image of Ali Tehrani, courtesy Amplitude.

Josh Scott

Josh Scott

Josh Scott is a BetaKit reporter focused on telling and breaking Canadian tech and innovation stories. His coverage is more complete than his moustache.

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