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Curt LaBelle ’99 chose a somewhat unique path among his Columbia Business School classmates — he pursued both his MBA at Columbia Business School and an MD at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons at the same time. “I had always been interested in medicine as well as technology and business,” says LaBelle, who originally aimed to become a physician who was aware of business fundamentals and maybe “dabbled in business on the side.” But once he arrived in New York to begin his MD program, that all changed.
“Being in NYC, I was exposed to both scientific innovation and a whole new world of opportunities on the business side,” LaBelle recalls. “I was very intrigued.” That intrigue led LaBelle to pursue the two degrees simultaneously, as one of the first students to take part in the newly established dual-degree program between the Business School and the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Through the School, LaBelle landed an internship with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and worked on several small projects with venture capital funds. After his internal medicine internship, he joined a venture fund full time, which turned out to be the perfect fit.
“I found that even as I was going through medical school, I was more interested in learning about new medical products in development and thinking about how they could be better than what was already available; thinking of the clinical and cost benefits of new products. That’s really where my heart was,” LaBelle says. “To me, venture capital and growth capital investing is the perfect combination of all my interests, with business, medicine, and technology interwoven.”
Since then, LaBelle has spent the last 16 years investing in healthcare companies, becoming managing director at Tullis Health Investors and vice president at Investor Growth Capital. He has also served as a board member for many successful companies, including KAI Pharmaceuticals, Sirion Therapeutics, and Impulse Monitoring, among others. Throughout these various roles, LaBelle was focused on investing in innovative medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and diagnostic services — but he became particularly interested in extending the availability of these products to the individuals who needed them most.
“As innovative as many of these products were, in some cases, they were not getting to the people who could perhaps benefit most from these technologies,” LaBelle says. “I was always interested in trying to see how we could increase the flow of innovation to the developing world.”
LaBelle got the opportunity to further pursue this passion in 2015, when he took on the role of managing partner for the Global Health Investment Fund, a $108-million social impact investment fund that provides financing to advance the development of drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, and other interventions against diseases that disproportionately burden low- and middle-income countries. The fund was originally created and structured by the Bill Gates Foundation to serve two purposes: to create and generate positive financial returns for investors, but more significantly, to invest only in companies that develop products that can be delivered cost effectively to those in need in the developing world. Ideally, these products also have applications in the developed world and can lead to more cost-effective care.
“Everything we invest in, we need to believe that it will generate positive returns, but we also must demonstrate that there is a need in the developing world — countries in Africa, India, South and Central America — low-income countries,” LaBelle says. “And we need to demonstrate that these products can be delivered to those countries at a low enough price to make it actually feasible.”
One example is the fund’s investment in an oral cholera vaccine. Following the devastating Hurricane Matthew in October, the World Health Organization and others placed an order for one million oral cholera vaccines to be delivered to Haiti. “In the aftermath of the hurricane, people there were at very high risk for cholera,” LaBelle says. “It’s really exciting that we have been able to help a company be ready to address situations like that and hopefully significantly decrease the incidence of cholera in an area where otherwise potentially hundreds of thousands of people would be infected.”
It’s that human impact that motivates LaBelle’s work the most, he says, and as the School celebrates its Centennial anniversary and looks toward the next century of business, something he ultimately sees as the driver for more socially responsible investing across the board. “I see a lot more interest in general from people trying to do some good with their investments and not just generate the highest financial returns possible,” LaBelle says. “There will continue to be more interest and capital going toward funds and companies that are not only trying to generate good capital returns, but also trying to accomplish something that’s good for the world. People will start to measure impact for their investors in humanitarian goals that are just as important as capital returns.”