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An Homage to Larry Bock, Who Had God’s Hand on His Shoulder

Xconomy San Diego — 

When I told Larry Bock in an e-mail about four months ago that I had been diagnosed with cancer, the renowned San Diego life sciences investor asked if he might see me at UC San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center. “Maybe we can share an infusion room,” he replied. “I will be sending good thoughts your way.”

It was a wry thing to say, and generous under the circumstances. My diagnosis was cancer with a little c: Early stage Hodgkins Lymphoma. I got off relatively easy with a short course of chemotherapy and radiation.

Larry’s diagnosis was cancer with a big C: “I have stage 4 pancreatic cancer and have been on chemo since June with some ups and downs,” he wrote in mid-March. In another e-mail exchange a month later, he wrote, “I am too weak to take on any new activities.”

Bock, who died last Wednesday at 56, was a life sciences entrepreneur and investor who helped start or finance dozens of companies that have a combined market value estimated today at roughly $70 billion. (When Xconomy came to San Diego in 2008, he also readily volunteered to help our editorial mission as an Xconomist.)

After completing his MBA in 1985, Bock joined a now-defunct venture firm in Costa Mesa, CA. He found he didn’t enjoy being a traditional VC gatekeeper who said “yes” or “no” to startup pitches, according to his wife, Diane.

“He really enjoyed the process of putting companies together himself,” she said Friday. “He would identify an area that was intriguing, and he would recruit the team he wanted. He would talk with the world’s experts in the field, and he would ask each one, ‘Who do you think are the five leading experts in this field?’” After talking with dozens of scientists, he would have a list of five or six names, and those were the people he would recruit for his startup.

It was during this time, she recalled, when Bock met Kevin Kinsella of San Diego’s Avalon Ventures. “Larry and Kevin Kinsella had a really good partnership,” Diane Bock said. “They had a lot of fun.”

According to Arch Venture Partners co-founder Bob Nelsen, Bock had an “amazing ability to ignore all of the conventional wisdom, and maintain a singular focus, and to get all of the best people together—even when they were arch-rivals… He could get people to paint the fence.”

Larry Bock

Larry Bock

After learning everything he could about microfluidics, Nelsen said Bock founded Caliper Life Sciences in 1995 in Hopkinton, MA, and managed to recruit both George Church and George Whitesides as scientific advisers. (PerkinElmer acquired Caliper in 2011 in a deal valued at $600 million.)

“I have never had more fun starting a company than when we were tooling across the countryside in New Jersey with Mike Knapp, starting Caliper,” Nelsen recalled. “I loved [Bock’s] sense of humor. He was serious, but he saw humor in everything. He had great fun doing his companies. It was always a lot of humor and drive.”

Bock’s ability to defy conventional wisdom was perhaps best exemplified in the creation of San Diego-based Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN)—now a dominant player in gene sequencing with a market valuation of more than $20 billion. In 1998, Nelsen recalled, “People thought we were crazy” to apply optics to genotyping when Affymetrix and its solid phase arrays represented the dominant technology at the time.

Bock started or funded 50 companies; a definitive list is here. Most were founded after he was diagnosed at age 29 with Stargardt disease, an inherited form of macular degeneration that causes progressive loss of vision. He continued to work as if he had no disability, and became an early adopter of innovative tools and technologies for the visually impaired.

In 2014, Bock encouraged two … Next Page »

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