Tech Tonics: Karen Hong, Turning Grad School Pain To VC Gain


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In graduate school, Karen Hong’s dream of becoming a biologist crashed into the inconvenient reality that she couldn’t stand working in the lab. Undaunted, Karen, pivoted into venture capital, and hasn’t looked back.

As befits a future geneticist, Karen chose her own genes extremely wisely: her dad was a legendary wunderkind in Taiwan who had come to the US to pursue grad school at CalTech; her mom, also exceptionally bright, had come to the US to pursue a PhD in Chinese literature at the University of Washington. After a bit of moving around, they settled in the Bay Area where Karen’s father became a silicon valley tech entrepreneur (who also ran a chicken restaurant in Gilroy on the side). Karen proudly notes that her dad never took a dollar of venture money for his entrepreneurial endeavors – which is amusing since Karen and her younger sister Nancy both eventually became VCs.

After contemplating journalism (like Lisa) at Berkeley (Go Bears!) but majoring in chemistry (unlike Lisa), Karen went on to graduate school in biology at MIT (where she overlapped with David) where she loved the coursework and was inspired by the faculty. But she soon discovered that while she was really admired the scientist… who ran the lab she selected at the Whitehead Institute (a relatively unknown early-career geneticist at the time named Eric Lander, who would go on to found the Broad Institute), she realized she couldn’t stand the actual experience of working in the lab – a “soul-crushing” experience with which David (and, one imagines, others) could viscerally relate.

With her characteristic candor and humor, Karen discusses both the lows of graduate school as well as her journey into venture capital, including the pivotal role of an exceptional mentor, Jean George, and some of the challenges she encountered and overcame along the way to her present role: a Boston-based partner at Novo Ventures.

We are delighted to welcome Karen to Tech Tonics. Today’s show — the 100th episode of Tech Tonics! — is sponsored by Medidata: Medidata – the Intelligent Platform for Life Sciences that closes the loop between clinical development and commercialization to power smarter treatments and healthier people.

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