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The Extraordinary Vision of Larry Bock

Xconomy San Diego — 

When Larry Bock gave the commencement speech for the University of California, Berkeley, College of Chemistry in 2007, he was introduced as “a very unusual man” who had founded, co-founded, or provided early stage financing for more than 48 startups, mostly in the life sciences.

What went unsaid in the moment was that Bock started or funded most of those companies after he was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, an inherited form of macular degeneration that causes progressive loss of vision. Stagardt patients gradually lose their visual acuity as photoreceptor cells die in the central portion of the retina. Bock retained some vision at the time of his diagnosis. Still, he was just 29 and legally blind.

His startup acumen, though, remained unimpaired.

As a 20-something venture capital associate, he already had made early stage investments in Gen-Probe (now Hologic), Idec Pharmaceuticals (merged with Biogen in 2003), and Gensia (now part of Teva Pharmaceutical). Bock also was a co-founder of Athena Neurosciences (which became a key part of Elan Pharmaceuticals), Aurora Biosciences, and Vertex (NASDAQ: VRTX), which acquired Aurora in 2001.

Those investments created an impressive line of innovative technologies, not to mention the aggregate value of the companies involved. Gen-Probe developed nucleic acid-based diagnostic probes used to test for sexually transmitted diseases and in other clinical tests. Aurora pioneered high-throughput screening technology for drug discovery, and originated work on the groundbreaking cystic fibrosis drug ivacaftor (Kalydeco), which Vertex brought to market in 2012.

Following his diagnosis, Bock was determined to continue working as if he had no disability.

“Larry is one the most creative entrepreneurs in biotech in the past 30 years,” Arch Venture Partners co-founder Bob Nelsen, who invested with Bock in Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) and many other ventures, wrote in an email to Xconomy. “He never lets his past successes cloud his determination, and everything he does, he does like it is the only deal on the planet—100 percent commitment, all the time. He deals with the cards that he is dealt.”

As Bock’s eyesight deteriorated through the 1990s and into the new millennium, he sought tools to assist the visually impaired.

He began carrying a Kurzweil text-to-speech reading machine on business trips. The machine scans a document and reads the text aloud in a computer-synthesized voice. Bock said the first one he purchased cost $8,000, was as big as a tabletop, and weighed 40 pounds. It took two to three minutes to read a page, Bock said, but he was able to get his reading done.

Bock also continued to drive, using a cumbersome digital contraption that included telescopic lenses and made him look like “a cyborg.”

Bock said he finally gave up his driver’s license about 10 years ago, but his determination remained unwavering. “I would say that disability didn’t affect him one iota,” said Kevin Kinsella, who founded the San Diego life sciences firm Avalon Ventures, where Bock was a general partner for nearly nine years.

And Bock continued to run the table.

He served as the founding CEO of San Diego’s Neurocrine Biosciences (NASDAQ: NBIX), and as a co-founder of Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), the world’s premier gene-sequencing equipment company; Caliper Life Sciences, the Hopkinton, MA, pioneer of microfluidic lab-on-a-chip technology; Onyx Pharmaceuticals, which won FDA approval for sorafenib (Nexavar) for certain liver, kidney, and thyroid cancers (and was acquired by Amgen in 2013 for $10.4 billion);  and Nanosys, a nanotechnology company in Milpitas, CA, that specializes in LCD displays based on quantum dots. (He has been a San Diego Xconomist since 2008.)

Larry Bock portrait squareBock also created the inaugural San Diego Science Festival in 2009. He split with the local festival following a power struggle with UC San Diego over control of the wildly successful event. But Bock then founded the USA Science & Engineering Festival the following year in Washington D.C., where it attracted nearly 1 million people in its first year.

Now 55, Bock continues to keenly feel the loss of his mobility and independence. He said he often needs help to perform simple tasks, such as adjusting a thermostat, finding a hotel bathroom, or dealing with an anti-spam captcha script. Unable to read a restaurant menu, Bock said he often orders the same meal over and over.

“When you are low-vision or blind, you are very dependent on others,” he said. “When I’m walking in New York City, I really have to strain to be able to see a [street] sign.”

His continuing quest for technologies to help him work—and just get around—recently led him to join forces with a couple of San Diego entrepreneurs to form Aira.io, an online startup developing new visual services for the blind. Bock estimates that Aira is the 20th startup he has become involved with as a founder or co-founder and seed-stage investor. But this time it’s far more personal.

Last year, Bock met Suman Kanuganti, an Indian-born engineer, and Yuja Chang, when they were demonstrating a prototype of their innovation for the blind at a “Dining in the Dark” fund-raising dinner in downtown San Diego for the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

“They were showcasing what they were working on—and it was what I had been looking for forever,” said Bock, who was an … Next Page »

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