Stephanie Sirota | RTW Investments | Part 1

About the Episode

Part 1 of 3.

My guest for this week’s episode is Stephanie Sirota, Partner, and Chief Business Officer at RTW Investments, a full lifecycle life sciences investment firm dedicated to solving the most challenging unmet patient needs. Stephanie is a seasoned expert and leader in business development, strategic partnerships, communications, and investor relations.

Prior to joining RTW, she was a director at Valhalla Capital Advisors. She worked in the New York and London offices of Lehman Brothers, where she advised on various mergers and acquisitions, IPOs, and capital market financing transactions for the firm's global corporate clients. Her deep insights into investment banking, strategic partnerships, and business development, offer founders many lessons.

Join us as we sit down with Stephanie as she discusses her upbringing and early exposure to different cultures and how it influenced her business leadership style. She shares key insights into how being a high-level tennis player has armed her with the competitive mentality to help her succeed in investment banking. We discuss her path through academia at Columbia University, the value of not specializing too early and allowing yourself the opportunity to explore your interests, and how it led her to where she is today. Stephanie explains how these life experiences helped shape her career and how it led to the transition from journalism to investment banking.

Please enjoy my conversation with Stephanie Sirota.

Resources, Links, & Mentions

Guest Info

Stephanie Sirota headshot

Stephanie Sirota is Partner and Chief Business Officer at RTW Investments, a full life cycle life sciences investment firm dedicated to solving the most challenging unmet patient needs. Steph is a seasoned expert and a leader in business development, strategic partnerships, communications, and investor relations, managing RTW's relationships with key partners, which includes banks, academic institutions, corporations, investors, and NGOs.

Before RTW Steph served as a director at Valhalla Capital Advisors, a macro and commodity investment manager. Steph also worked at Lehman Brothers' New York and London offices, where she advised on merger and acquisitions, IPOs, and capital market financings, with a focus on cross-border transactions for the firm's global corporate clients.

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Blog / Transcript

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Jon - 00:00:00: This episode is brought to you by Excedr. Excedr provides life science startups with equipment leases on founder-friendly terms to accelerate R&D and commercialization. Lease the equipment you need with Exceder. Extend your runway, hit your milestones. Request an estimate today at www.excedr.com. 

Intro - 00:00:24: Welcome to the Biotech Startups Podcast by Excedr. Join us as we speak with first-time founders, serial entrepreneurs, and experienced investors about the challenges and triumphs of running a biotech startup from pre-seed to IPO with your host, Jon Chee.

Jon - 00:00:45: My guest today is Stephanie Sirota, Partner and Chief Business Officer at RTW Investments, a full life cycle, life sciences investment firm dedicated to solving the most challenging unmet patient needs. Steph is a seasoned expert and a leader in business development, strategic partnerships, communications, and investor relations, managing RTW's relationships with key partners, which includes banks, academic institutions, corporations, investors, and NGOs. Before RTW Steph served as a director at Valhalla Capital Advisors, a macro and commodity investment manager. Steph also worked at Lehman Brothers' New York and London offices, where she advised on merger and acquisitions, IPOs, and capital market financings, with a focus on cross-border transactions for the firm's global corporate clients. Over the next three episodes, we cover a wide range of topics, including Steph's childhood, her journey from investment banking to the buy side, her initial exposure to the biotech sector, and partnering with Rod Wong to grow RTW Investments from a small firm to a major investor in the life sciences industry. Today, we'll chat about Steph's upbringing, covering her early exposure to different cultures, her background in competitive tennis, her time at Columbia University, and how these experiences helped shape her career. Without further ado, let's dive into this episode of the Biotech Startups Podcast. Steph, it's so good to see you again. And thank you for taking the time to come on the podcast.

Stephanie - 00:02:04: My pleasure. It's great to see you again, too. I look forward to today.

Jon - 00:02:07: We were thinking about fun places to start in our conversation here. And as we were doing our homework, we wanted to turn back the hands of time and kind of just start in the very early days. And myself individually and my team included, we were curious, kind of what was your upbringing like and how has it influenced your leadership style and business philosophy?

Stephanie - 00:02:28: I'm an only child. My father was older and very indulgent and also always spoke to me as an adult. And my mother was very caring and very close to me. And she's Italian. My father was American. So I spent a good chunk of my youth being pretty coddled. But my parents really took me wherever they went. So we spent quite a bit of time in Europe in summers. I was lucky to have exposure to a lot of things. But I was also around adults a lot of the time. I think that made me, and maybe part of it was innate, but because of these circumstances, because where I sort of found myself, I became an observer and I became a good listener. And I listened to conversations. I listened and I learned then that you can learn so much more when you hear people asking questions. You learn more from the questions. Than actually from the answers. And that became one of the ways that I approached my life, whether in school or as I pursued areas of interest. I was very much an observer and I tried to soak everything in. I was never really impulsive. And I think that's really served me well. And then I ended up becoming a very dedicated competitive tennis player. So my preteen and teen years were really dominated by sport. And I think I already kind of had the maturity and the mindset of an athlete because I understood, I think there is a certain maturity in a discipline that you need, or that level of commitment. And I had that. And that was also very important. And competing in tennis and then traveling as a tennis player. I mean, I played across the US, I played in tournaments in Europe, I played in South America, I spent actually almost nine months in Argentina when I was 15. So I did a year of school there. A year of school, I say that lightly. I played a lot of tennis and I managed to get a creditization for the school that I did do. But that was really important and critical to my development because I understood the art of competition. I also realized that... You're not going to be your best every day. So I had to draw on other things to be a good competitor. And I think that really translates also, when I look back on it now, I realized that toughened me up. I feel like I can live through a bear market, like the one that we're experiencing now. I think about so much more than just the immediate, what is my task at hand?

Jon - 00:05:24: There's so many directions I want to go. First, I'm also an only child. So I had a similar experience following my parents on international trips. But I got to say, like, looking back, I was like, dang, I was a brat. I was like, I couldn't appreciate it in the moment. I was like, in the moment, I was like, I just want to go hang out with my friends. Can I go do that? But now in hindsight, I'm like, wow, I would not have had this. Like, what an eye-opening experience to see different places, different cultures, just different situations. And just kind of being a sponge and soaking that up. Because now we kind of fast forward. And now you have so many things kind of going on, comparatively speaking, to your childhood or adolescence. I'm like, mom, dad, could you redo that? Can I follow you on these trips again? I would love that. 

Stephanie - 00:06:08: I did not appreciate it at the time. It was a drag. And I appreciate it now,

Jon - 00:06:14: Yeah, totally. I empathize with the kind of the grind that it requires to be, you know, focused on a sport. So I played lacrosse growing up and it was kind of a very similar thing with the traveling and everything of the sort. And I guess my question to kind of dig into the tennis portion, the tennis era, was this something that was driven internally by you? Or was it something where your family was always, we want you to focus and pursue sports at this level? 

Stephanie - 00:06:40: Yeah, no, that's a great question because I think so many times when kids are really good athletes and super into a sport, it is driven by the parents. In my case, I kind of fell into tennis sort of accidentally. It was the summertime pastime. I was at a tennis camp and I happened to be pretty good at it. I had good hand-eye coordination and I liked it. It was fun. I think I won the trophy at my camp and I wanted to keep playing. And that was really the beginning. I found my own passion. I loved the sport and I was very motivated. So I think about this too, a lot in the context of even my work today or even just in my life. I've always looked at failures or shortcomings as a challenge. And I think I certainly did that in tennis. So I was probably 11 when I kind of fell in love with tennis and decided that I really wanted to do it. And I was like, okay, I'm going to do it. And I'm like, okay, I'm going to do it. I'm going to dedicate myself to the sport and give up everything else. And that was late because a lot of the kids that I was meeting at these tennis tournaments on the weekend had been already competing and they had been playing five days a week since they were like eight years old. And that wasn't my case. So I had to play catch up, but I was really driven. I also kind of learned that when you love something, it doesn't feel like work.

Jon - 00:08:02: That completely resonates with me. In the Bay Area, growing up in Berkeley, I was introduced to lacrosse in probably like middle school. But there were like neighboring cities and schools where exactly what you said, they were getting started as toddlers. And having that kind of element of playing catch up, like I was in middle school, they had been playing for five years ahead of me, was really kind of like lit a fire for me personally. I think back on that athletic experience and how it's kind of sharpened the kind of work ethic and problem solving that I carry to till this day. Was that a kind of a similar experience for you as you were playing that catch up to your competitors?

Stephanie - 00:08:45: Absolutely. That shaped my mind, my heart. I have the spirit of a competitor. And so think about this in the context of life. Roadblocks are just that. You know, you fall, get up and go. Well, find out like what you're doing wrong. Understand your situation. But I mean, I think I am incredibly mentally tough because look, when you're on the court for that match, you can't rely on outside coaches. I mean, you've got to fight your own battles. And I've experienced a range of those battles. And I've experienced wins when I was down and it looked like I was down and out. So I know the joy of a comeback. And I know where that feeling, you know, I'm not going to be able to do that again. Which is pretty great. And I've also lost matches where I had a big lead. And I know what happens when you, you know, no pun intended, when you take your eye off the ball. You know, I spent about a year and a half, eighth and most of ninth grade at Nick Bollettieri. Today it's IMG, but Nick Bollettieri Science Academy then. And they were one of the first to really point out the importance of sports psychology. And they had this incredible psychologist, Jim Lehrer. And at the time, I couldn't appreciate the value of the psychology around competition. And I remember they would say things like, he's not giving up. And I used to think like, of course they're not giving up. Like they're still on, what do you mean? Like throw the towel in and walk off the court. But looking back on that and looking back on myself and understanding that whole competitive arc and what you do go through. Yes, you, people do give up. And now I can sort of see it. If I'm watching, you kind of know, if the spirit is intact. It has been an incredibly important tool and has sharpened the way I approach business, company building, like life. It's an experience that has really kind of created, you know, the person I think I am today.

Jon - 00:10:45: I couldn't agree more. And the one other experience of mine that it reminded like hearing about wins and losses, wins that I thought I should have won, or like, you know, and so on and so forth. Another experience that reminded me of was like in athletics, every step of the way, you're kind of like, as you're progressing skill wise, you start to get into like upper echelons of skills. And that was like, when I first time probably experienced kind of like an ego death of sorts, where I thought I was very good at this level. And then you get introduced to the next bracket. And you're just like, oh, this is what really good looks like. And it was a really humbling experience. And in that I also carry that now where it's like, you can easily go through life just thinking you're the best at everything and you know everything. But I think back about that like kind of eye opening experience with when we got to collegiate sports, it was just like, oh, some people are just built for this. And, and it's okay. Like there is this it's okay not to be like this. And I think that's kind of what I think about it. And I think that's kind of not be the best. That's just the world. And it just reminded me of that. I think fondly back on it now as a learned lesson, but probably I was like a little bit sour grapes about it when I was still playing.

Stephanie - 00:11:52: Well, no, it's true. And the other thing I think that's very eye-opening is, and this is another translatable moment between sports and life and executive life, the better you get at your sport, the more important coaching is and refinement of the coaching that you're getting and specializing that coaching. So you've got like your fitness coach, you have your tennis coach. I mean, it is important to work on things with the experts. And that's something that as a young investment banker, I, you know, I just, I didn't know. I was like, well, there's just a hierarchy. And then you go from analyst to associate to whatever you make your way through. And then you just learn. But being on the other side, being at the management and leadership level, I value coaching as a professional. And we value it for our team as well, because there's an incredible, that you can learn from experts who have arms distance and can look at a situation and really see it from a very clear and studied plans.

 Jon - 00:13:00: Totally. And it reminds me of like, every time we have our board meeting, it's like having your basically your board of experts and coming in like, all right, here's everything that I'm thinking about. And just having tons of stuff shot down. There's like, okay, at first, I had to like check my kind of emotion. I'm like, don't be offended. They probably see something I don't. And you know, sometimes we disagree. It's okay. But and that was the same thing with like athletics, you need someone to call you out. When you're just like slacking off, or you're not, you're not pulling off, you're not living up to your, your potential. And then that definitely carries over, at least in in my business life. But thinking about your, you're traveling for your for tennis, you're also doing school simultaneously, as you are approaching university and considering going to Columbia, was there kind of a, hey, I'm going to play collegiate tennis and also go to school? Or kind of what was the considerations for you as you were approaching university?

Stephanie - 00:13:57: So I got to be pretty good when I was around 16 and 17. And I actually played a few small pro tournaments. They were called Satellites. It had about a $10,000 total purse. I think I kind of won the qualifier to one of the first tournaments. And I played about three in Texas. And the school was faxing me my homework when I was away those three weeks. And I actually then thought I was going to play. I visited SNU in Dallas. And I was going to play at SNU. Because I really thought, okay, I'm definitely... Well, there was a moment where I thought, like, I'm going to go pro. And my parents are like, no, you're going to go to college. And it was on when I was playing these small pro tournaments in Texas. I kept my amateur status. And then I visited SMU and I coached there. So I was going to go and play. And about six months before, I tore my rotator cuff. And, you know, my career had ended. Because I think it was also very emotional. Because not only did I face many, many months ahead of physical therapy, but I think the emotional part came in because I felt at that point that I was just burnt out. And I didn't really want to have anything to do with the sport anymore. And I hung up my racket. I didn't want to have anything to do with tennis at that point. So I did go to SMU. I did not play for them. And then I think that's sort of when the rest of my life kind of... Like, my life sort of changed. You know, I wasn't a tennis player. I was a student. I was a college student. And I really started to focus then on the next layer of my life and the next phase. And, you know, I was born in New York. And I lived in New York City until I was about five before we moved to Florida. My parents still had friends and would come to New York often. And I always loved it. So I wanted to move back to New York City. So I transferred to Columbia in college. And that was the beginning of the next phase of my life. And so not as a tennis player, but as a student. And just that was sort of the foundation for... Everything that I then pursued in the next 20 years.

Jon - 00:16:00: The injury that just like kind of like puts the nail in the coffin for an athlete is always so devastating. Even when, you know, when they get taken out for a season, it's so painful to see because it's like everything you've just like invested all the time, emotions, blood, sweat and tears into it. But as you are kind of transitioning from tennis and, you know, now you're at Columbia, did you always know that you're going to study English literature? Or is that something where you're like, got there, figured out that this is what you wanted to pursue?

Stephanie - 00:16:29: I got there and I sort of figured it out on the spot. I mean, my mother is a writer. She's a creative. She studied classics, philosophy, poetry. My father was very quantitative. He was a math guy. And I grew up around commodities trading, which was his business and my grandfather's business. So, you know, I think I had an appetite for both economics, but then also humanities. And I ended up picking my major when I got to Columbia. Columbia is famous for the core curriculum. So you actually do have to study like history of art, history of music, literature, humanities, contemporary civilizations. So there's a lot kind of rich, layered classics element of your education there. And, you know, I loved the literary part, just reading. I think it was really a gift to me to enjoy my time as a student. Which was definitely on the back burner when I was a high school athlete. I didn't know or care about the Western canon. I came to care about it and I came to love it when I was at Columbia. So I really threw myself in completely.

Jon - 00:17:40: I had a very similar experience. I ended up choosing basically biochemistry, but Berkeley had a similar to like the core curriculum where it's like, I know this is outside of the track, but you must go experience this. And I was a little bit reluctant at first. I was like, but this is like, I have to do like, there's so much to do on this like bio track. Do I even have time? And thank God that was a requirement because it opened up my eyes to so much, like the breadth of lessons learned in the humanities. Like I studied a lot of philosophy. It started from like a bioethics course and just kind of the bioethics of research. And then it led into like a bunch of philosophy. And anyways, I have a great appreciation for the humanities. I hope this kind of style of education doesn't just get thrown to the wayside for overly, just like throwing the blinders on. You're now a computer scientist or you are now a doctor.

Stephanie - 00:18:36: Couldn't agree more. I think about this all the time also because I have children and I wonder/ worry about, you know, we live in a very specialized world. When you say you studied biochemistry, like that would have been very useful for me in my job now. Even at RTW Investments where our team is about 75 people strong, we have many specialists who are super deep and bring incredible depth of knowledge in their own particular area. But you also need, the big picture thinker, you also need a strategist. You also need someone who sees all of the moving parts. And I think, you know, the nice thing is that it's important to know yourself and your track shouldn't be something that is imposed on you. Like your track should emerge really organically and authentically to what your strengths are. So I do think that everyone should, particularly in foundational education, I think it's important to get a sense of everything. And being a Columbia graduate, you can't really call yourself an intellectual unless you have studied, you know, some of the classics and you have read some of the most, you know, important works. It's also wonderful because you then begin to understand how economic cycles, how political cycles, even in the literary world, you know, you can't just say, there is almost no original thought. Like everything has happened already, right? And it's just expressing it in a new way.

Jon - 00:20:03: I completely agree. And I think there's something to be said too about like getting this breadth of exposure and then choosing to specialize afterwards or kind of being able to flex. I guess what scared me about specializing too early was just not knowing, like not getting exposure elsewhere, being like, okay, this is where I want to specialize. There's also kind of like, we're kind of speaking in zeros and ones of like binary where you're either a generalist or a specialist. You can fall somewhere in between too, where you're like, I can go deep. But also when I need to like flip the switch and go broad, we could do that too. And that's also a superpower in its own right. Because I think you oftentimes find, and Jacob Glanville was an early guest of ours, was talking about it as like, he calls it like the respiratory system where you like do things wide and then you just like condense and then you go down. And, but it's kind of this emotion. I'll oftentimes find myself going down wormholes, but those wormholes are kind of informed by like this general just curiosity on whether it be bio or finance or econ or whatever. And I think that's where a lot of very interesting ideas and investment ideas come about. So as you're, you know, you're kind of pursuing English literature at Columbia, I know you ended up going to a master's program in journalism. How did that come about?

Stephanie - 00:21:19: I love writing. And then I did some creative writing courses. And then I kind of thought that journalism was a really interesting path. I liked the idea that there is an altruistic side to it, right? You want to tell a story. You want to share information that's important. It's your way of campaigning for something. And so I kind of thought that it's a great, almost humanitarian discipline. Then I realized that actually, as strong as your words may be, if you want to get things done, you kind of need to put capital behind your ideas. So I did the next best humanitarian job, which was investment banking. And, you know, I went to work at Lehman Brothers and it was fine. I mean, it didn't necessarily matter that I didn't come out. Econ, it's not like there was an undergraduate finance degree. You can come out of undergrad and be an investment banker. So much of what you do, you learn on the job anyway and, you know, through training programs. So I think that being a journalist or being trained in that way is really important for anything. I mean, you're faced with like a mountain of information and you have to parse through it and prioritize. You know, what is really important? What's going to matter? And how do you find the nugget that, you know, you want to use? What is the hook of your story? Or why should a company buy an asset or sell an asset? What is the understanding of the landscape? And I think a good switched on journalistic mind can be very, very effective.

Outro - 00:22:55: That's all for this episode of the Biotech Startups Podcast. We hope you enjoyed our discussion with Stephanie Sirota. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, leave us a review and share it with your friends. Thanks for listening and we look forward to having you join us again for part two of our conversation with Stephanie. The Biotech Startups Podcast is produced by Excedr. Don't want to miss an episode? Search for the Biotech Startups Podcast wherever you get your podcasts and click subscribe. Excedr provides research labs with equipment leases on founder-friendly terms to support paths to exceptional outcomes. To learn more, visit our website www.excedr.com. On behalf of the team here at Excedr, thanks for listening. The Biotech Startups Podcast provides general insights into the life science sector through the experiences of its guests. The use of information on this podcast or materials linked from the podcast is at the user's own risk. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not the views of Excedr or sponsors. No reference to any product, service or company in the podcast is an endorsement by Excedr or its guests.

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