Flagship Ventures’ Afeyan Is a ‘Four-Seasons’ Athlete


Noubar Afeyan

By Kyle Alspach

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Boston Business Journal) — Noubar Afeyan has had a hand in founding 22 companies to date.

Scientist, entrepreneur, public company executive and venture capitalist — many people spend a lifetime on just one (or maybe two) of these roles. But Afeyan has been all four, and he has found success in every one of them, says Ed Kania, who cofounded Cambridge-based Flagship Ventures with Afeyan.

“I see him as a four-seasons athlete across those dimensions,” said Kania, who has known Afeyan ever since leading an investment into Afeyan’s first company, PerSeptive Biosystems.

Afeyan founded the company in 1987 after earning his doctorate from MIT. The bioinstrumentation company — which achieved $100 million in revenue and was ultimately acquired by PerkinElmer — would be the first of the 22 companies cofounded by Afeyan to date.

Underpinning all of it is a passion for experimentation. Afeyan brings the scientific method not just to the technologies his companies develop, but also to the process of creating new companies. Flagship Ventures itself — and especially its startup- founding arm, Venture Labs — has been “an experiment in institutional entrepreneurship” from the start, Afeyan said. The firm that would become Flagship Ventures was founded in 2000. “We started with an experiment, as to whether we could systematically conceive, optimize, launch and develop new ventures,” Afeyan said. What that has meant is that Flagship does not operate like the vast majority of venture capitals, which support entrepreneurs who come up with an idea and then seek funding. The majority of the ideas for the Venture Labs companies are conceived by Afeyan and the firm’s other partners, most of whom are also scientists and inventors.

“We tend to start what we call proto-companies,” he said. “These are not companies, but they are, if you will, hypotheses that we are testing.”

Among the companies most closely associated with Afeyan areWaltham-based software company Affinnova, which applies genetic algorithms to the world of consumer product marketing; Waltham- based BG Medicine, a developer of cardiac diagnostic tests that went public in February, and Joule Unlimited of Cambridge, which says it has developed a method for creating renewable fuels through combining sunlight, waste carbon dioxide, water and specialty microorganisms.

Afeyan, Kania said, is “insatiably drawn to newness, to better ways of doing things, to new ways of solving problems.” On top of it all, Afeyan — who is ethnically Armenian but was born in Lebanon and grew up in Canada — is also a cofounder and board member of Armenia 2020 and the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia, two economic development projects in the Republic of Armenia. Afeyan said he is seeking to take his venture expertise into a new realm through the projects.

“If you think of an emerging country as a startup, you start thinking in the same processes — what’s my core competency, what markets do I go after, where do I get capital,” Afeyan said