With a Passion for German Culture, Investor Anula Jayasuriya Is Hard at Work Promoting Female Entrepreneurs & Investing in Women’s Health

Written by Lauren Desrosiers

With a focus at the intersection of healthcare and business management, German Accelerator mentor Anula Jayasuriya shares her insights from personal experience in the pharmaceutical industry and venture capital world.

We sat down with Anula to speak about the barriers of entry into the VC world for women, the importance of organizations which support female entrepreneurs, and her investments in women’s health, specifically reproductive health and fetal medicine.

For German Accelerator’s dedicated Life Sciences Program, you serve on the Advisory Board, are a Selection Committee member, and have mentored several companies. What draws you to work with German startups?

Back when I was 16 years old, I spent 1.5 years in Salzburg and a lot of time in Munich. It was during this time that I fell in love with the German and Austrian cultures. I know Bavaria very well and have a deep sentimental attachment to this part of the world. Later on, my first VC role was in San Francisco, working for a German/ U.S. venture fund called TVM, which was based out of Munich. I also worked at Roche, a Swiss healthcare company with a strong presence in the German speaking markets. Therefore, the US-German context is a recurring theme and deep interest in my life, as is the globalization of Life Sciences. The German Accelerator has been the most recent way for me to participate in the huge strides Germany is making in the Life Sciences. I am excited to see Berlin become so strong in digital health and after having supported many biotech companies in Martinsried in an earlier decade.

In evaluating investments, I look for the best opportunities regardless if the entrepreneurs are men or women. But when it comes to women, I am sensitive to their special challenges; I focus on getting women to become successful and avoid getting stranded in the “system”. I strongly believe that diversity of thought, diversity of ethnicity, and male/ female differences are important to build a resilient and robust company. In a rapidly changing world, this is more important than ever before. There are two main themes I focus on: 1. women entrepreneurs and 2. women’s health. I define women’s health very broadly, but one important pillar of that is reproductive health/ fetal medicine. In addition, there are several common chronic diseases such as cardiac, autoimmune, Alzheimer’s, depression, etc. that manifest significantly differently in women and these differences hugely are areas that are under-recognized. These are all areas of interest to me; not only do they resonate with me as a woman, but I see a huge opportunity because there is very little competition. I am linking both social imperatives with the business imperatives and feel fortunate that the two have come together for me.

Building upon the themes that are important to you, can you please explain what is EXXclaim Capital? 

To focus on women’s health, I founded EXXclaim Capital in 2015 – the XXs represent the two female chromosomes. To date, we have made 8 exits and our companies span the spectrum: medical devices, digital health, and diagnostics companies. Currently, I am looking to make two new investments in diagnostics companies focused on neonatal sepsis and preterm birth detection. As mentioned earlier, fetal and newborn medicine is an ongoing area of interest to me, and I look forward to finding similar companies like this in Germany. One German company I met 7 years ago at the Charité Entrepreneurship Summit and am following is Clue, who developed an app to track your menstrual cycle. They are notable for being a pioneer and leader in digital health/ Femtech.

I find digital health is interesting as it has lower startup barriers due to low upfront costs relative to traditional life sciences startup companies. Although we don’t yet know what the exit scenarios will be, it certainly makes it an interesting area; I am pleased that German Accelerator is actively supporting digital health startups as it opens up new opportunities for new types of entrepreneurs, especially women.

Keeping with the investor/ VC theme, in your eyes has the female VC landscape changed since the early 2000s?

The number of females in VC firms is still very small but rising. There are several groups working to change this. For example, the “Breaking 7% Network” (a group of women who are either VCs or work in another deal-making role) is working to get the number of female VCs up from its current 7%. I am very focused on looking forward, rather than looking backwards. I believe examples are the loudest and most compelling reasons for change. Investing in talented women, showing successes, and delivering returns to investors is the best way to convince the world. Rather than complaining, I recognize opportunities and then invest in them. And when one is successful speak about the successes, not just for your personal gain, but to change the landscape!

What do you believe is the main barrier of entry into the VC world for women?

I think it’s a human nature issue – that people are most comfortable being in groups like themselves. One encounters the same issue in other small groups, like VCs, where people hire someone who is similar to them. Diversity is hard to maintain in small groups (such as VCs), it is much easier to sustain diversity in larger companies. In the VC world, men have been around for decades and they have formed a male culture. Introducing women into that mix is not easy. Another issue arises when VCs are looking at investment opportunities – the value proposition is easier to understand when it is an area that affects you personally. It is no surprise that men find women’s health harder to relate to. I too resonate with opportunities related to my life – women related issues versus violent video games for example – and I have an affinity for German entrepreneurs because the culture was an important part of my early life. This is human nature and why diversity in VC ranks is essential.

That’s also why we need to have more women in VC firms. It’s less about social equity and more about serving the existing market. Currently, there is a market of female users, female customers, and female patients whose needs are not met because investors don’t easily resonate with them. When you mix it up and have a diverse group of people investing, they will all resonate with different things. The same way the global population resonates with different things. And society will be better served.

So, what are some common factors you see among the successful female founders out there? Why do some succeed and others don’t?

What female founders tell me is that they have to be more resilient because (their impression is that) they get a lot more negative feedback than their male counterparts. Women have to be more persistent and examine feedback looking for what’s valuable in the critical responses they receive. They can’t let biases or negative feedback be detrimental to their drive.

I am not a fan of the term “mentor” since it suggests it is a one-way street. In my experience, mentoring is a two-way street. I get a lot of satisfaction and inspiration working with entrepreneurs. I think female founders benefit from having one or two people who will help tease out which lessons are to be learned versus what can be ignored. They need to jump through more hoops and be more resilient. But the ones who hit their stride are those who are able to select what is important to learn.

Do you think it’s easier for a female-led team to focus on women’s topics (i.e. a fashion magazine or women’s health)? In other words, if women have a product that is specifically for women, is it viewed less critically by male investors?

Yes, in general, I think men have an easier time seeing women working on something that’s female-focused, but the problem is they often diminish women’s interests as niche markets. Male investors are usually more comfortable with men innovating for women – as has been the case historically. However, I am very optimistic – I think the world is changing in real-time and I see that the change is coming from the bottom up – primarily because of the efforts of young women. Some of this change has been facilitated by the lower barriers to entry of digital health because now you can reach people through different channels. Twenty years ago the channels (i.e. doctors, suppliers, distributors) were all fixed and primarily male-controlled. The end-user/ patient was not the focus in healthcare. Tech’s entry into healthcare has changed the dynamic, lowering the barriers of entry for entrepreneurs, and allowing them to reach their audiences directly.

With regard to this shift that you are observing in real-time, in your opinion is it the same in the U.S. as it is in Germany?

I am much more familiar with the U.S., but my impression is that it is also changing in Germany. I see a generational difference rather than a geographical one. Kudos to the women of the younger generations for making the change by seizing new technology channels. In all fairness, the environment now is a little easier, however it is all about recognizing the opportunity and taking action. Most entrepreneurs get told ‘no,’ and women get told ‘no’ more often, but ultimately, it’s about how you process the information.

How do you see the roles of organizations where women in the industry support each other?

I think they are very, very important. In the past, there have been organizations where women were able to commiserate, That was helpful, but not catalytic. Now there are strong networks where women collaborate. The younger generation is doing a great job helping each other and advancing women in their respective industries. Here we take a page from successful men in terms of building networks. Men have always helped each other for example by calling their colleagues when an opening in their firm became available. We women are now working across firms, syndicating deals, and through the network, letting entrepreneurs know which VCs to go to. I see a lot more of this happening now than ever before. Everyone gets help from their network and it’s a numbers game. Once you facilitate the process, it grows exponentially.

To wrap up, in your mind, what makes an entrepreneur?

A lot of grit and persistence. It is a huge amount of work and I admire people of every sex and gender who take it on. One needs to have such fortitude – it is inevitable that things will go wrong. An entrepreneur has to deal with one crisis after another. Have the ability to sustain intensity and be able to pivot when needed. It is both very challenging and easier today. The world is changing very fast and change creates opportunity. To be an entrepreneur you have to see the opportunities in the changes rather than being disheartened by them.

About Anula Jayasuriya:

Anula has been investing in the life sciences and healthcare space since 2001. Recently, she founded EXXclaim Capital to capture the under-invested business opportunity in women’s health. In 2007, Anula Co-founded and raised an $85M investment fund, Evolvence India Life Science Fund I (EILSF I), to provide growth capital for companies in health care delivery, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals in India. She was previously a venture partner at ATP in NYC, a partner with Skyline Ventures in Palo Alto, and a principal at TVM, a German-US venture capital firm. She received her AB, MD, PhD, and MBA all from Harvard University.