Some years ago Brigitte Smith was in Idaho with a US Army general. They were trying to clean up a toxic waste site.
“A teaspoon of this stuff will kill you,” the general told Smith as she sought samples of toxic waste. “Be careful.”
Smith, the co-founder of GBS Venture Partners, is now used to risk.
In 2002 she and Geoff Brooke conducted a management buyout of Rothschild’s Australian life-sciences venture capital business. GBS now has $450 million under management and investments in medical devices and therapeutics.
Still, she admits to fainting at the sight of blood, believes she is inadequately educated compared with her colleagues and confesses to an undiplomatic nature.
After graduating from Melbourne University with a chemical-engineering degree, Smith says she wanted to “save the world.”
She found a job with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Zimbabwe, working at an ethanol plant. The job helped guide Smith to a career in business.
“I wanted to save the world but I worked with UNEP and discovered the level of bureaucracy and the way decisions are made there were not for me,” recalled Smith.
She went to work for the consulting firm Bain in London and Sydney, and travelled the world. One of her Bain mentors had a MBA from Harvard and encouraged her to go to his alma mater.
“It’s the best and most recognisable brand name,” says Smith of her Harvard MBA. “The teaching was fantastic as was the mix of students. The facilities were extraordinary.”
Smith, on a Fulbright scholarship, did not one but two degrees in the US. Her second was a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, not far from Harvard.
“I’m not a diplomatic person, so it’s funny that I studied diplomacy; but it was a nice balance to the MBA,” says Smith.
After three years of study Smith went to work for Molten Metal Technologies, a company that dealt with hazardous waste and had 150 MIT PhDs on its staff.
After working in Idaho, where she met the general, Smith’s study-work visa ended, forcing her to return to Australia.
“I was looking to make a difference in the world,” she says. “That’s how I came to venture capital and life sciences.”
At GBS, the initials stand for the two founders, Smith jokes she is the least educated of her colleagues who all hold PhDs or medical degrees.
Of her co-founder Brooke, Smith says: “He is the tall, good looking guy investors want to give their money to.”
GBS’s principals have raised four funds, two since the firm became wholly independent.
“We’ve all worked in the US. Many have worked in the bio-pharmaceutical industry. My colleagues have deep science or medical backgrounds,” says Smith. “We keep an eye on the top trends in science and what the pharmaceutical and medical industry want to buy.”