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Richel Liu left a secure post as CEO of a comprehensive information technology group to start a venture capital firm with a focus on early stage ophthalmology and optometry companies. She’s now one of a growing number of successful women entrepreneurs in China, a country that’s home to two-thirds of the richest women in the world.
The move from IT CEO to eye-care VC isn’t as dramatic of a detour as it sounds. To Richel, ophthalmology is a multidisciplinary therapeutic area; it involves not only medical devices and clinical practice, but also advanced technology, the latter of which she knew well. She also saw the potential because eye care applies to people of all ages, from the perfectly healthy to those with chronic conditions, she explains.
With host Rob Rothman, MD, a practicing ophthalmologist and managing partner of VC firm InFocus Capital Partners, Richel shares how she transitioned from the top of the corporate ladder to running her own business. She also discusses the goals of her VC, Rimonci Capital, and why she believes its work will help improve eye health for people everywhere.
Listen to the podcast to find out:
• How she did it, from a student in engineering and economics, to enterprise CEO, to VC founder with an eye toward ophthalmic devices, Richel took risks that many individuals shy away from.
• The regulatory hurdles involved in getting a drug or device approved for use in China.
• The funds that comprise Rimonci Capital, including a business fund, an incubator fund, and a general fund for early-stage startups in ophthalmology and optometry.
• What about leading a large company “stifled” Richel.
Click “play” to listen.
Rob Rothman: Hello OIS podcast audience nice to speak with everyone again, for those of you who have not watched or listened to a podcast before with me, my name is Rob Rothman. I am a Practicing Ophthalmologist. And still, in clinical practice, I spent about 50% of my time as a glaucoma specialist in New York, involved in direct care patients and the other 150% of my time, which is not involved in patient care I spend running InFocus Capital Partners, I am one of the Co-founders and Co-managing members along with my partner Ron Weiss, who is also an ophthalmologist. And we are an early investor in ophthalmic technology. Our first fund is currently closed. Now we have 13 assets all ophthalmic lead-focused now except for one which has made a slight pivot into ophthalmology and cardiology. But ultimately, we are now involved in the maturation and propagation of our assets while contemplating the launch of our second fund. I am privileged today to have on the podcast, someone who I greatly admire and have been involved with for the past several years, actually, probably since the very beginning of my venture capital life. She was one of the first people I met at a meeting right when we started in focus, Richel Liu, who is the Founder and CEO of Rimonci Capital. And she’s got an amazing story. And she’s going to tell us all about it in a few moments. But on a personal level, Richel and I both sit on the board of a joint investment. So we’ve had some interaction together as board members. But we’ve also shared diligence, discuss companies, and have been incredibly involved in the ophthalmology investment world. And it’s been really fantastic to have the perspective from investors in Asia who share the same passion as we do in trying to identify important and meaningful economic technology to bring to the world. So Richel, thank you for taking the time today. There is a huge time difference for us. Thank you for accommodating me, and it’s really a pleasure to have you here.
Richel Liu: Okay, thank you, Rob, thanks for this interview.
Rob Rothman: So I wanted to get started because I you know, there’s been this general trend that I don’t know if this is a purposeful maneuver by OIS and Craig. But I’ve had the privilege of speaking to some unbelievable women who have been involved in ophthalmology. And I would consider you among that group of incredibly talented and well-regarded people who have taken a role in helping to shape ophthalmology across the planet. But I think it’s important for people who don’t know you to sort of hear a little bit of your background and try and understand sort of where you came from, where you grew up, what your education was, things like that sort of help sort of channel into how you started Rimonci, because there are people who will listen to this will want to hear how you did it, I want to hear how you did it. Not being an ophthalmologist, right, being an investor, mostly and having a business background, and also about being a woman. And I think that’s important for a lot of listeners here because the challenges are slightly unique. For women, I think in the investment community, although those barriers seem to be breaking down quite a bit. So let’s go through all of that. Let’s just have a whole, you know, discussion on you know, sort of where it all started. So, tell me about your childhood where you grew up, and what your educational pathway was?
Richel Liu: Okay, so I grew up in China, and I think I also get my education in China. My university study, I think, in the is engineering and my postgraduate is economics. Yes. You know, not from my education, you can now see too much relevant with even medical specialty, you know, no need to say the ophthalmology, I think, actually, my life has connection with ophthalmology when I was, you know, 40, I left my previous position as a CEO of a comprehensive IT company is a big company, you know, with many, many business unit to cover the electronics and enterprise software. Well, you know, and also the IT integration, I worked in this company, I think, for almost 13 years, I grew up from very basic work on to the CEO, I thought I already experienced, you know, different stage as professional manager. And during this career, I had the chance to raise the money, you know, for from the funds for several of my business. And also, I had the chance to create the joint venture, you know, with my overseas partner, and also I even had the chance to push some of our business to open the branch in the US and in Israel. You know, during this life, I mean, the past year, you know, why was the 13 years in this company? I really admire that, you know, the entrepreneur, you know, I hope to be involved. Have more in the startup fields. So I decided to leave my, you know, lost her job. And why was 40 You know, same year, I think it’s in the December of the 2016, I create Rimonci, at the very beginning, I only want to create a small VC that was focus direction. That’s mainly because of my industry background, and my also my pastor career, Tommy focus could create more value, but we didn’t decided to ophthalmology at the very beginning, you know, we try to see whether we can find some specific industry that has inter, you know, disciplinary technology as barrier, and that can also improve human life quality, this is I think, is very, very important for us. You know, we take almost one year to meet with a lot of the, I think startups and also we found that several of family companies looks very interesting to us, you know, when we met many, many companies, it make us, you know, start to go dive into more in ophthalmology. So we start to interview the physicians, and also we read the industry report, you know, it’s very promising industry. And the vision issue accompanies, you know, people’s lifetime, and globally, exceptionally globally entering into the aging society, is actually China. So we thought with fund, we should focus on, and I think that my ophthalmology career, you know, start, it’s, I know, it’s looks like a little crazy for you, and I think is also maybe a little crazy for many people, as I got this question, Richel, why you step into the ophthalmology and how you get into the ophthalmology, it’s looks like nothing relevant with my education with my previous, you know, industry background, but I think it’s my decision, you know, it’s my choice. And this is my past career told me what I should focus on, and what I should chase, you know, job is something like, to be professional, but career I think is something that you can devote yourself, it’s very, very important. And I want to connect my career with improving the human life quality, this is I think, is really, really important. And then we also feel that we want to immerse ourselves in the startup world, and to encounter with many, many different entrepreneur that will also, you know, enrich our lives. So this is I think, it’s all my thought, you know, why was, you know, left my previous job, and we start to look at, to meet with many, many companies, and how we look at ophthalmology is not from the as you as a very professional specialist or physician, you look at this industry, maybe from more in a professional, you know, angle, but we look at from this industry is like, wow, is very interesting, you know, is the we do see many many, you know, many, many multiple disciplinary technology that together in why industry? And we also see, wow, this is some industry relevant from the kids – teenager on to you are, you know, you become the aging people. So that’s all in our thoughts and why we, you know, come into this industry. Yeah.
Rob Rothman: So there was a, there was a very brief encapsulation of your entire life, I’m going to have good, I’m going to dive backwards a little bit because I want to, I want to focus on one of those two little jumps. So just going back, and we’re going to spend some more time on your funds because I think it’s okay, obviously, you said all the important things and all the things I think we all agree with, about your focus, but there’s a time between you finish your education and get your first job and that first job sort of sets you off a path. I think that if you had taken a first job in something completely different, you might not end up in ophthalmology. So what is that first step that you come out of your educational process? And you did some training in the US too, to some point you were at Yale for postgraduate sort of Management course, right?
Richel Liu: Yes, yes. I did some training in the Yale you know, business management school. That’s in my last job you know, that’s as a big company. They try to we call it like, they select some the young potential to join this cross, you know, in the Yale school, I think is like a mini-MBA because not a very long time is just a couple of months. But we do is very, very intensive you know, training in the Yale School, and we try to learn that what’s the, you know, the MBA, you know, similar like and the mini-MBA cross. And I think we learn a lot in the Yale University, and it’s very good. And once we come back China, that’s the Yale University, they also send the culture and also the professor come to China, you know, for our training. So it’s a very good, you know, experience. Yeah.
Rob Rothman: And then your first job you said is with a big company, but what is the focus of that company? I mean, this was a job that you took after your educational process, and obviously had some focus on life science in some way. Is that correct?
Richel Liu: No, actually, what I described, my last job is, it’s my third job, you know, but it’s my last job, I worked for 13 years before this company, I think I have another two, you know, companies, but not very long time. My first actually, after I’ve graduated from my postgraduate school, I think is I work for security companies, as analyst. That’s my first job, you know, is this ticker, I think, for maybe, one year and a very short time. And this company, I think, is my longest term, you know, from the working point of view, you know, it’s 13 years. Yes, this company, I think, I know, the life science industry is like a part of my business, I mean, this company’s business is in the enterprise software, it means like, we provide the IT system for the hospital, you know, we selling the, like the many, many information system like the HIS, like the PACS, like the FIS system for the hospital. So from that time, I start to know what’s the hospital and how’s our hospital to wrong, as we need to, you know, go very deeply to into the each, you know, function department function, and to connect to the, you know, all the business unit of the hospital. And we also create, we call it like the enterprise bus, it means, like, all the department can load the data in this, you know, like, like, we call this the data highway inside the hospital. So I think we, from that time, I start to connect with the hospital system. And also we know that how the physician how the management of the hospital to work. So I think maybe that’s the beginning, for me to a little understanding about the healthcare industry. And that’s also relevant. That’s what once I left my previous job, you know, we try to start some business in life science in the healthcare industry. Yeah.
Rob Rothman: So, you have this business background, you’ve worked as an analyst, you end up in this large IT company that’s involved in the life science sector, and then something happens. And you say, I’m going to go start a venture capital fund, how does that happen? So how do you decide at that moment that the right place for you to use your skillset is massive venture capital investor? And we’ll talk about ophthalmology in a minute, because I think that’s part of it, but just specifically how you make the transition from big corporate world into, you know, early, you know, investing in life sciences. So was that process? What prompted you to do that?
Richel Liu: Okay, so I think, why was the as a professional manager to work for a big company even I’m, I work as a CEO, you know, it’s like a top management, but I think he’s still a big system, you know, you have many, many layers you need to report to so I feel not very you know, like, if I really want to go dive into some very interesting technology, but you know, I want to go dive into but there’s a big company you know, you need to be persuade many, many people. So some interesting company come to us because as a enterprise as a corporate, we do have the investment arm, we do have the investment arm, so but you know, but I feel that it’s very difficult because sometimes the chance coming if you couldn’t, you know, grab the chance it’s gone. So I think okay, I mean, you know, because you’re in this big system, you need to adapt to many people’s thoughts and you need to convince many people if you really want to do something and it’s actually for the corporate you know, it’s they are more like the more mature technology you know, for my company, we have the investment arm, but they may choose the solution is more close to the market. But you know, I’m more like the early stage is very, you will see many many interesting things, but this interest is the maybe very earlier for big corporate. So all of this I think I decided, okay, maybe I can create my own venture, whatever the direction, you know, I just want to see I want to create a venture even is a very small VC. But I can step into the technology word, you know, I can everyday I can look at, you know, the very interesting technology, I can meet with people, I can talk to the entrepreneur. So I think that’s the trigger reason that for me, like, I really want to, you know, create my own business, not to stay as a top management, but you feel your, like, binding and with a very, you know, frame here, yeah.
Rob Rothman: So as personal so right. So that’s, and that’s very similar, I think the story that I have, and I think that a lot of people have in venture capital, when they realize that this the things that they enjoy about the investment lifecycle. There are certain aspects that are more gratifying at the early stage, and very much as we’ve shared diligence on multiple projects, is part of the part of the discovery of new technology and understanding what’s going to be most needed and potentially most successful not only as clinical applied technology, but also investment return. It’s very exciting, and it’s unique, and you cultivated that interest over 15 years of prior experience and realize that that was what you wanted to do. How did you decide on ophthalmology? So how does it then translate into this is because, you know, my opinion, right? Ophthalmology is the greatest investment landscape and in the world in the depth and breadth of what we what we see is incredible. And yet, as you mentioned, you know, we’ve heard this multiple times, and I’ve made the statement multiple times that investors sometimes say I’m not investing in something so narrow, they don’t really understand the ophthalmology space, but how did you figure that out coming out of an IT company? Because while I think you made an unbelievably prescient decision to do so, it’s probably not very clear to a lot of other people listening how that how that occurred.
Richel Liu: Yes, you know, why you started to create I decided to create a small VC, you know, is at the beginning, I couldn’t do a big one, you know, because it’s for the VC life is the first time for me, so, why decided this I start to meet with company I really want to see what’s the really you know, early stage startup looks like and I more you know, focus in the life science, but in a life science, we are more focused in the medical device world that will be a little irrelevant with my you know, education background. So, I am not come from you know, from the physician or even from the pharmaceutical background. So, we look at many companies, you know, cardiology or aesthetics you know, like, many different industry, but we feel well, several of the company from ophthalmologists looks very interesting and attractive to me, I try to see why this you know, could be some like new material or is like a laser or is like maybe algorithm from the AI world or even some like cell therapy, you know, it’s I saw why this small, you know, organ but can combine with many, many interesting you know, like, I call it like fundamental technology or interdisciplinary technology. So, this is a I pay, I start to pay attention to this. So, I go dive into for this field, you know, I in order to quick learn the industry, you know, it’s better you talk with people experienced people, so, I interviewed with many physicians you know, is like from US world, Western world also from China, I try to look at how the, you know, from the physician point of view of homologies point of view, how they look at this, and also I tried to find some of the corporate leader you know, in this industry, I tried to ask them what their angle to look at this industry and beyond that, you know, we do read many industry report like the market scope on also some other you know, meteors. So, it means I try to bring more comprehensive angle, how they look at this industry, but the very, very, you know, to trigger my, you know, decision to focus in Ophthalmology is I find well the eyes really you know, no need to see is so critical for the people even secondary to the life and also I think it’s once we interview and also read the report we know that the vision issue could be a company with people’s lifelong you know, whatever your kids, teenager, adult or even you become the aged, you know, different stage you have different issues of the vision. So I saw Wow, it’s so acquire, you know, lifelong, you know, issue. And this is also now need to see I think this is a if you have a good vision that I think your life quality will be also improved. So because of this reason we feel maybe it’s through our, you know, direction at the beginning, we can now see like, we make a 100% right choice, but we said, Okay, let’s try, you know, if we I think maybe by that time in China, that’s the first fund, you have a very specific industry to focus, we are not a health care fund, we are not life stance bound, we are even not a fund like invest in medical device. We are a fund investor in ophthalmology, Optometry, so and the mainly, you know, in by that time, I think is mainly in device, we do invest in pharmaceutical, but I think a major part is still the medical device. So this is the reason but if I look at back six years ago, why I made this decision, I think, now I feel I make a right choice is a great industry. And even this industry, if you successful for one project, I mean, like for one company, one project is can really solve some of the issue you feel satisfied. So that’s I think we make a right choice. Yeah.
Rob Rothman: Obviously, I agree with you 100%. I mean, you’re echoing the sentiment that, you know, that we have, and obviously you’ve worked with some of the other funds that are just like us, there are very few that focus specifically on ophthalmology. But we all if you, as you get to know the people involved, you realize that we all share the same sentiment part of it is that there’s a significant unmet need in ophthalmology and is that as unbelievable as technology is in some areas, there are improvements that could that could do better. And we haven’t tackled macular degeneration yet, although we have some companies now that are some promising early data regarding dry macular degeneration, and we have some treatments for wet macular degeneration, we still don’t have cures for anything. And there’s a lot of work to be done. So yes, we would agree. And it’s and it’s great to have a partner like you. And I think one of the things that’s important about having you in existence is that the importance of identifying technology, whether it’s device or drug, or some other healthcare technology, focused on ophthalmology, or AI, is that it’s important to be able to have science that’s applicable to the global population. And understanding what’s needed in China and how the Chinese market will accept certain technology, or pharmaceuticals and the process by which those companies that have these products have to go through in order to gain approval is very unique in Asia. And, you know, our feeling, at least as a fund is that we’d love to have you involved in our projects, because you provide that expertise. It’s particularly challenging in Asia, correct? I mean, you can’t just easily translate technology in America or in Europe and just say, hey, we want to be in China. Now. Let’s go. Right. It’s much more complex process.
Richel Liu: Yeah, I think he’s, yeah,
Rob Rothman: Keep going to focus on it. Sure.
Richel Liu: So I agree with you, Rob. You know, it’s we investing in some, you know, overseas company, like US, also Israel. And I think now we also have company in Singapore. But I agree with you, It’s our own experienced, you know, we’re in China here. And I think that to translate that solution to China to really, with the right way to penetrate to this market is actually the first you need to overcome the regulatory hurdle. It’s not very easy, it’s challenged. So I think you need to be with really understanding about the healthcare environment here is actually I think, now in China, the whole healthcare industry experienced the reform, you know, it’s like for the transformation, that I think the reimbursement system in China now become more and more powerful not like before, more and more powerful. But except to the reimbursement, I mean, the insurance system. I think today in China, that’s pocket money, I mean, people’s pocket money still has take the big proportion of the health care expenditure. So sometimes if the solution you’re not fully reimbursement but it not means you don’t have market here, so like some of the solution in optometry, you know, if you for myopia and even for presbyopia so is purely, you know, pocket the money, they do still have a very good, you know, market potential and also some of the solution like dry eye. So it means like, the payment system and also I think is the regulatory environment is very different here. And also I always say like China is the more like a tiered world, you have the bigger city like Beijing, Shanghai is two, already very, very developed city, you can look at these more connected with, you know, everything’s more like the for, I think, for the modern city, but we also do have the, you know, rural area, I mean, in the tiered, you know, basic tier two city, that is people’s, you still not even big gap, like with Tier One city. So this is also I think the constituent the comprehensive, you know, health care system, you know, in China. And I think in overall, I think this tiered house cow system is under, you know, forming now, but not completely, you know, constructed yet. So you need to know all of this character, and then I think you can make a right choice, how you can help your company or your solution to really penetrate to the to China market to Chinese market. Yeah.
Rob Rothman: Right. And then there’s the whole process of regulatory approvals and intellectual property protection, that’s different there. And the whole process is somewhat unique. And I think that for United States, investors, even European investors, who are used to a very, sort of formulaic and straightforward process of how things happen, although it’s it may be very linear in China, it’s very different. It’s very different linear pathway. And I think that I think that smart investments will contemplate whether or not there’s applicability in other economies, besides the United States and Europe. And we certainly, you know, have value the insight that we’ve gotten from you regarding the process or whether or not something is going to be easily either approved or utilized in the Asian market. So I think that’s a very unique position for you to be in as the only at least the only ophthalmology focused VC that I know of, certainly gives you a unique perspective. And clearly, with your business background, that sort of, you know, makes it makes it a lot easier for you. What is Rimonci going to do going forward? You guys have a nice portfolio? What are your plans for the future? Launch additional funds? Or tell it tell us what you have in store for everybody?
Richel Liu: Okay, so, so far, I think in the past, I mean, five years or six years that we now manage the two funds, you know, it’s like, what our first fund is also, almost, I mean, close for the investment, but we still have some small follow up, you know, for the portfolios, if they really make the progress. For the second fund, actually, I think we set up maybe one-half year ago, and this fund, we are more focused to create the business, it means like, it’s a little different model than the first fund. Because in the past two, almost more than two years is a pandemic, you know, it’s the traveling is limited. And, you know, we couldn’t like before to meet with many, many company to join a lot of the global ophthalmology meeting. So we need to find a model, I mean, for this unique earning timing. So we set up a local fund, and let’s local fund, we do can invest overseas, but this fund, we are more focused to create the business. It means like it’s more like the corporate winter, but it’s belong to ourselves. And we use this fund to also connect with some special vehicle, you know, for this special vehicle, we do the acquire, and also to adopting the solution. This solution we feel is could be fit for the China market Chinese market, but not only also we hope that its global has, you know, market potential. So is there so this fund, we call this a when to create business. That’s what’s this fund now, and this fun, I think we almost won the half-year. I think we are more focused in I think several fields. One is optometry, you know, that’s a big issue in China. And also, I think Asia and also we do the business in the cataract because I think for the global aging SLT is actually here we do see the premium IOL goals, you know, steadily, even in China. So, we want to penetrate to this business. And also we use this fund to connect with, we have a very small incubation program, I call this a program, because not a real fund, it’s a program, we do have small money there, but we use this big fund to support as back for this small program, it means for this small program, we go even much earlier, you know, stage is means we have some, we have a professor to forming the IP, and even we license the IP from the laboratory and, you know, university to form of the very early stage company even only has like mice data of laboratory lever data. So, for this small program, so far, we have two projects, two assets, and once they start to grow, and we will you know, support from this, you know, the second thought. So I think for Rimonci now is a little comprehensive, what I mean is comprehensive is like we do have the first is purely, I mean, like venture capital where we do the minority investment in interesting technology. For the second fund, we do more more about the venture credit business and also for some of the incubation. And I think once the word back to normal, I mean, we can freely to traveling whatever China and also US, I think we will continue to seeking and also explore more new, you know, technology, we do have many company in the pipeline. But as I said, we are not only satisfied with the Zoom meeting, we want to really, you know, to meet with them and to you know, to visit the company. So that’s I think we leave to maybe the second half of this year, and also for the future, you know, two years? Yes.
Rob Rothman: Well, we think we’re all hoping for that timeline. It’ll be great to finally get together listen, I, you know, I think we should probably try and wind it down now. So I don’t get yelled at again. But I, you know, I just have to say that it’s been a pleasure, obviously speaking to you today and to learn, you know about you personally and your path. And, you know, the contributions that Rimonci is making to the development of important ophthalmic technology, it is fantastic having a partner in the projects that we are both involved in, and I’m looking forward personally to continuing to try and help, you know, for us to help each other identify opportunities that improve the lives of patients, both in the United States, and in Asia, and across the planet. And I think that the attitude that you bring to this is the attitude that everybody who invests in life sciences should have. And I’m certainly thankful that you chose ophthalmology out of all the things that you might have chosen. And I hope the audience understands that your that Rimonci is a special entity with the proper focus. And it’s going to be important in helping to, you know, better ophthalmic care patients across the planet. So, Richel, thank you so much. Thank you for your time today. And I’m looking forward to seeing you in person whenever that’s going to occur. And to the OIS podcast audience, thank you again for your time, and I’m looking forward to speaking with you again in the future.
Richel Liu: Okay, thank you, Rob. Thank you