Although Peter McWilliams ’96 knew he wanted to become a venture capitalist when he was still a student at Columbia Business School, he couldn’t quite see the path to reach his goal. “I was always intrigued by venture capital, but it wasn’t clear to me how I could get there,” he says.
After serving as a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton for two years, McWilliams, who also holds a PhD in chemistry from Princeton University, went to work for Genentech, which put him at the center of both the biotechnology and venture capital worlds. There, it was the casual mention of a business opportunity at a Columbia Business School alumni networking event that led him to Sanderling Ventures, an investment firm that focuses on biotech and biomedical business opportunities.
At Sanderling, McWilliams works closely with entrepreneurs to assist with business development and funding, even taking on operational roles and helping to manage at the board level. While some firms have moved away from such a hands-on approach, Sanderling remains focused on seed-stage investing. “I call it ‘old-school venture capital,’” McWilliams says. “You’re part analyst and part manager, but I think there are many days when I’m a coach or psychotherapist, too.”
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McWilliams says his experiences at the School helped prepare him for this multifaceted role. “There are so many different dimensions in which you grow when you go to Columbia,” he says. In particular, he points to Professor John Whitney’s turnaround management course. “Start-ups are like ‘turnarounds in reverse,’” McWilliams says. “The same focus and intensity required in a turnaround is required in a start-up from day one.”
For McWilliams, staying the course, while also being open to opportunities, has led to success and satisfaction. “As long as the steps you take are building toward an ultimate goal, you will either reach your goal or find something else more interesting along the way,” he says. “Regardless, you’re sure to enjoy the journey.”