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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 honoree and speaker at the gala.

Kanuganti, who was then attending the UC San Diego Rady School of Management, and Chang had come up with a system to let a blind person to take advantage of Google Glass, the tech giant’s still-experimental Internet-connected eyewear with an optical head-mounted display on one lens and a camera that records what the wearer is seeing. (While Google halted retail sales earlier this year, Bock said the technology is still available to potential commercial partners.)

Kanuganti and Chang modified the glasses so a blind or low-vision user can connect to a call center—Bock describes it as “mission control”—where a guide can watch a live video feed from the camera. (They removed the optical head-mounted display, which is of little use to blind or low-vision users.)

Their idea was to create something like an OnStar service for visually impaired pedestrians. The guide, like an air traffic controller talking a pilot through a crowded sky, can help an Aira user navigate through a congested hotel lobby, busy downtown streets, and other bewildering situations. With access to the Internet, the guide also can call up anything from restaurant menus to bus schedules, and provide relevant information to a user via a miniaturized microphone-speaker embedded in the eyewear’s temple stem.

Agents could work in a call center or out of their home. “One of the things we’re hoping for is that some of those agents would also be disabled—like disabled vets who have good computer skills and can see, but can’t leave the home,” Bock said.

Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti and Larry Bock

Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti and Larry Bock

For Bock, the most outstanding characteristic of the technology as a user is that it’s inconspicuous. He embraced the idea as an investor, and joined the startup as executive chairman to advance the technology and help develop a marketing strategy.

They named the company Aira, combining the concept of artificial intelligence, or AI, with Ra, the Egyptian god who sends his eye across the land to restore order amid chaos. It’s an apt metaphor for the blind, Bock said.

So far, Aira has raised $325,000 in seed funding from Bock Family Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, and Lux Capital, where Bock has been a special limited partner since 2003. The company is looking to raise a Series A round in the fall.

The Aira team is now planning a beta trial in July of its remote assistance technology, which would be provided to customers as a tiered, subscription-based service. “It’s sort of an Uber-style model, where you’re routed to an available agent,” Bock said. A trial should help the team determine how affordable the technology would be. Bock anticipates that Aira would provide different levels of service. A premium subscriber, for example, would be able to connect with a select agent for guidance, instead of calling into a pool and getting the first available agent.

Bock concedes that Aira is targeting a niche market, but he says it is not insignificant. The National Federation of the Blind estimates that nearly 7 million Americans are legally blind, with central visual acuity of 20/200 or less, but the Aira team estimates as many as 20 million are sufficiently visually impaired to use Aira’s technology.

Developing wearable technology tied to an Internet-enabled guide service might seem like a radical departure for a biotech investor like Bock, who has traditionally focused on drug development and biopharmaceutical startups.

But Bock says every project he’s worked has involved the creation of technology that didn’t previously exist. “In most of the companies I got involved with, I sort of figured out a breakout area, identified the most prominent leaders in that field, and licensed the core technology,” Bock told me.

That willingness to take risks in areas “before they are even named” is Bock’s biggest skill, says Arch’s Nelsen. “When he is doing a company you can’t talk to him about things other than that effort. It consumes him. I would back him even if he was starting a coffee shop.”

Bock, traditionally steeped in biopharma, seems to be sensing a shift. He’s excited that biopharma therapies, including stem cells, could potentially halt the progress of Stargardt’s disease. (The defective gene behind the condition was discovered recently.) But he contends that assistive technologies for the disabled currently “surpass the promise of any pharmaceutical treatments.” “The [fact] that a double amputee runner with prosthetic blades can now run as fast as the fastest men in the world…shows the promise of assistive technology,” Bock says. “I can read faster than most of my sighted friends with the help of a Kurzweil reader, and very soon the Deka bionic arm or a robotic exoskeleton might enable an amputee or paraplegic person to lift more weight than a normal person.”

“That a person with a bionic ear could hear better and in potentially in more areas of the sound spectrum than a normal person means that there will be a point where a disabled person may be able to perform better than a normal person.”

Drugs to treat macular degeneration still have blockbuster potential, as Genenetech showed with ranizumab (Lucentis), a breakthrough treatment for the wet form of the disease in 2006.

But Bock says the slow development time and likely incremental improvements of drugs now pale next to the speed at which an assistive technology like Aira can proceed to market (and without the same level of regulatory headaches). Perhaps more importantly, Bock said a new drug therapy for the visually impaired is just “not going to change your ability to conduct your life in the same way an assistive technology would.”

Larry Bock might have lost his eyesight, but he never lost his sense of direction.