MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Lisa Suennen is a unicorn collector.
Here in the seaside office where she takes pitches from health care entrepreneurs, she displays a children’s book titled “If I Were a Unicorn.” It sits behind a headband with a gleaming golden horn and a long trailing mane of hair in all the colors of the rainbow. She also sometimes wears a pair of 4-inch designer stilettos patterned with unicorns.
Why? Silicon Valley’s starry-eyed metaphor for privately held startups valued over $1 billion, Suennen explained, “is a silly construct — and so I have silly things.”
In an industry in which hype can often overtake reality, Suennen (pronounced SOON-en) is quicker than most to call out silliness. She has a reputation as an irreverent straight-talker and, as the lead health care investor for General Electric’s corporate venture arm, she has a knack for deflating doomed business models and bad ideas for improving health care.
She also doesn’t hesitate to make light of those who take themselves overly seriously.
In a recent interview in her office, her expression turned conspiratorial as she described the iconic five-star Rosewood Sand Hill hotel in Menlo Park, Calif., where she’d attended a business dinner the previous evening. “It is straight out of Central Casting — you could cast the TV show ‘Silicon Valley’ from that bar.” Here she let out a belly laugh, so loud it filled the room. “I was walking through there thinking, ‘Good God. What have we become?’”
Standing at exactly 5 feet tall, Suennen, 52, is a towering figure in health care venture capital.
Psilos Group, the firm where she previously spent 15 years as a partner, built an enviable track record of betting on startups that went on to reward their investors with successful and lucrative exits.
Among other firms, Psilos got in early on Definity Health, a health benefits company acquired for $300 million by the big insurer UnitedHealth; ActiveHealth Management, a managed care company that got bought by insurance giant Aetna for over $400 million; and Extend Health, which operated a private Medicare exchange and got bought for $435 million.
The success means Suennen finds herself in high demand. By her own estimate, her group at GE Ventures reads or hears roughly 1,500 pitches annually before whittling them down to four or five new investments a year. That makes her one of Silicon Valley’s top gatekeepers.
“I’ve seen a lot of people clamoring to get the opportunity to spend time with her,” said Iana Dimkova, an investor who works for Suennen at GE Ventures.
Suennen has been placing bets lately on companies focused on innovation in health care: continuous monitoring of at-risk patients; applying AI and machine learning to medical imaging; and telemedicine for genetic counseling.
But she’s also been trying to provide guidance to others looking to replicate her success. Beyond startup founders looking for money, Suennen is mobbed by entrepreneurs seeking mentorship, career advice, and connections from her famously thick Rolodex. She estimated that each week she gets five to 10 such requests, mostly from women in the industry.
Dimkova said with a laugh that her boss’s following is “cult-like.”
Said Geoffrey Clapp, a serial health tech entrepreneur: “If Lisa told me to jump off the bridge, I would jump off the bridge.”
When Suennen was trying to name her blog about a decade ago, she knew she wanted to incorporate the term “venture.” Brainstorming alliterative combinations, she hit upon the word “valkyrie” — one of the fierce women in Norse mythology (and, later, in Marvel Comics) who have the power to decide whether a slain warrior may pass through the gates of Valhalla into heaven.
“I thought that was a pretty hilarious metaphor for venture capital,” Suennen said. And so “Venture Valkyrie” it was.
At the time, Suennen said, “I thought I was just being a smartass.” But the online moniker stuck — and it has since morphed into something of an all-purpose personal brand.
Suennen has embraced her alter ego, stamping it on her business cards and the nameplate outside her office door. She’s also leaned into the memorabilia, buying a valkyrie-themed phone case and a hand-knit horned helmet for her chihuahua. Three comic books each featuring a valkyrie on the cover hang framed in the hallway in the Tiburon, Calif., home where Suennen lives with her husband and, when she’s back home, their 22-year-old daughter.
A sense of fun and authenticity is what draws many in the health care community to Suennen.
Health care entrepreneur Margaret Laws recalled a discussion with a colleague years ago about who they might ask to join a new advisory board they were forming. Laws’s colleague recommended Suennen — characterizing her not only as an incisive thinker but also someone who “just walks in a room, and drops the F-bomb.”
Suennen came as advertised when she joined the advisory board. “She’s going to say things that are provocative, and she’s going to swear,” Laws said.
(She also doesn’t mind having a little fun. Suennen has been known to win $1,000 or more in nights out at the craps table; she’ll sometimes use her winnings to expand her famous shoe collection, which she estimated at 200 pairs, though she confessed she had not counted lately.)
As Suennen’s profile has risen, the hordes clamoring to get a few minutes with her have gotten bigger — and it’s becoming harder and harder to find time to help them.
Along with her day job and her blog, Suennen co-hosts a podcast. She co-teaches an MBA class at the University of California, Berkeley. She asks tough questions as a director on numerous corporate boards. She co-founded a mentorship organization to to help health care’s C-suite level women advance in their careers. And she’s in high demand on the health care conference speaker circuit. (“I get asked to do more things, and I have a hard time saying no, because they’re interesting,” she explained.)
“Lisa did not become more like the good ol’ boys in order to be able to deal with the good ol’ boys. She is staunchly, and with great flair and humor, totally herself.”
Molly Coye, longtime health care entrepreneur
Friends and colleagues say Suennen does it all with a style that is her own.
“Lisa did not become more like the good ol’ boys in order to be able to deal with the good ol’ boys. She is staunchly, and with great flair and humor, totally herself,” said Molly Coye, a longtime health care entrepreneur.
Suennen challenges more traditional approaches to venture capital, Coye said, “not just in being a woman — but in the way she thinks and the questions she poses.”
Consider the scene last month at a conference at Stanford Medical School, which had been dominated by blandly optimistic pronouncements about the power of big data to make health care more precise.
Then Suennen bounded onto the stage. She cracked a few jokes. Then she got to the point: “We spend way too much time with confusing, bizarre applications of technology that really doesn’t advance the interests of the patient.”
With a charisma that jolted through a sleepy room, she proceeded to take aim at some of the buzziest ideas in her business: the parade of medication adherence companies (“none of them… have made a material difference”); technologies for optimizing the clinical experience (“they haven’t stood the test”); and the notion that everyone with a behavioral health condition should be screened (“the cost… would be prohibitive”). And don’t even get her started on the many health care entrepreneurs who pitch her but haven’t actually talked to patients (“sad and wrong”).
Suennen speaks with a seen-it-all frankness about the endless pitches she hears.
“Overpromising large amounts of revenue is a 100 percent certainty for entrepreneurs,” she quipped in an interview with STAT. Another universal truth, in her view: “The amount of cash needed to get to break even is always underestimated.”
Unlike many of the industry’s other plainspoken deflaters of hype and pseudoscience, Suennen is generally careful not to publicly call out specific companies or entrepreneurs. In a neat trick, she manages to be at once provocative and controversy-free.
“I try to be good to people. I try not to be a jerk,” Suennen said.
Behind the closed doors of pitch meetings and board convenings, Suennen can be formidable.
A fellow Silicon Valley VC, Joe Mandato, recalled an instance a number of years ago in which he sat in on a board meeting of a health care company for which Suennen served as a director. (Mandato declined to name the company.) In Mandato’s telling, the entrepreneur behind the company was making a pitch about his progress in an effort to seek additional financing.
But with a series of probing questions, Suennen identified shortcomings in the executive’s pitch that appeared to cross the line into a misrepresentation — and called him out on it, Mandato recalled.
“This entrepreneur was seemingly trying to pull the wool over her eyes,” Mandato said, “and once she had the data to support her position, she was relentless in holding the entrepreneur accountable.”
She’s always been this way,” said Tracy Dayton, Suennen’s younger sister.
As a child in Princeton, N.J., Suennen took the academic fast-track, skipping kindergarten and first grade. When she was 9, the family packed up and moved west to Silicon Valley, so that her father could start a company that was among the first to manufacture real-time ultrasound scanners.
Suennen studied journalism and political science as an undergraduate at Berkeley. Thinking she would become a political speechwriter, she stayed at Cal after graduation to enroll in a Ph.D. program in political science, while also taking a job in the nascent tech industry. It was in that job, she said, that she realized “I really enjoyed the business world in a way I did not know I would.”
At age 21, she left Berkeley after earning her political science master’s degree, and within a few years landed at a startup called American Biodyne. The company was an early pioneer in managed care for behavioral health — and she held different roles in marketing, sales, and operations, helping build the company from an early stage startup into a publicly traded juggernaut, until it was acquired for $800 million in 1998.
That company was animated by the hypothesis that “you could reduce costs in health care by a lot just by doing a better job caring for people,” she said. And so later that year, she teamed up with American Biodyne alums and other colleagues to try to bring that idea to health care venture capital.
At the time, she said, “I really didn’t have any idea what a venture fund was, frankly.” But she proved to have sharp instincts for venture capital, and she spent 15 years at Psilos before leaving in 2014 to spend a few years as a consultant.
In 2016, she joined GE Ventures, where she considers investing in just about anything in health care, except for drugs and fully invasive medical devices.
She now splits her time between the firm’s office in the heart of Silicon Valley and the personal office a 15-minute drive north of San Francisco that’s home to her unicorn memorabilia. When she works at her desk in the latter office, she looks out on a sunny inlet often populated by paddle boarders and sea otters.
It’s here that Suennen does much of the work that has elevated her profile as an advocate for women working in health care.
It’s where she records her podcasts, frequently bringing in powerful female health care entrepreneurs for a guest interview. And it’s where she often writes her blog. She’s been writing about the obstacles holding women back in health care careers since long before the subject gained heightened focus amid the broader #MeToo reckoning. (She took on the current moment, too, in a post considering “the chick thing,” as Suennen put it.)
The #MeToo era, however, has not changed the counsel she doles out to industry women. “It’s not like any of these issues are new. They’re just public,” she said. “My advice to women is just to basically be yourself.”
Suennen knows that because of her advocacy, she’s sometimes thought of as “the woman VC.” But she’d rather people regard her just as “the VC,” she said.
Then, pausing for just a beat, she revised herself: “I’d like for them to think of me as the effective VC.”