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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 San Diego entrepreneurs to start a company around their idea for connecting blind or low-vision users wearing Google Glass with a control center, where Internet-enabled agents could guide them to their destination like air traffic controllers.

One of those entrepreneurs was Suman Kanuganti, who left his job at Intuit to launch the visual assistance startup, called Aira, along with Yuja Chang. Kanuganti said Bock spent much of his time over the past two years helping them. “He was more than a mentor to me, and the fact that he’s not around now just freaks me out,” Kanuganti said. In a memorial blog Friday, Kanuganti wrote that Bock’s involvement was key to Aira’s early development and fund-raising.

As the CEO of an innovative technology startup, Kanuganti wrote that Bock taught him specifically to: focus on the details; never to assume anything; save every penny; always be prepared; gain respect by showing it, not by asking for it; and to never say no to accepting money from a worthy investor.

In recent years, Bock also was the founder and principal of Science Spark, a nonprofit outreach organization created to engage youngsters in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and the USA Science & Engineering Festival—which he started in Washington, DC, after falling out with UC San Diego over control of the San Diego Science Festival following its successful debut in 2008. He had a vast capacity for accomplishing things.

Larry Bock USA Science & Engineering Festival

Larry Bock at USA Science & Engineering Festival (photo courtesy Lockheed Martin)

“Forgive me for being immodest, but the part that is even more remarkable is that the festival and the companies he started were great big deals,” Diane Bock said. “And a lot of the time, he was sitting in our kitchen in his pajamas. He relished being at home. He loved our kids.”

She described him as “a typical over-achiever.” While his job frequently took him away from home for days at a time, she said, “the good news was that his job was so haphazard that when he was home, he could go to events at school in the middle of the day. I think he often was the only dad there.”

The man she married in 1986 was born in Brooklyn, and grew up in Chappaqua, NY. He attended Horace Greeley High School and Bowdoin College, where he majored in biochemistry. A friend from those days remembered on Facebook last week that Bock drove a beat-up Toyota with an inordinately large kayak rack. He also could ski down a snowy mountain in the blink of an eye.

He planned to be a doctor, and applied to 14 medical schools. He was crushed when they all rejected him.

“He always thought he was a very good student,” Diane Bock recalled. “He was surprised and chagrined that he didn’t get into medical school. It sort of turned him upside down. He didn’t have a plan ‘B.’”

She said he “kind of blundered into the job at Genentech,” as a researcher working on infectious diseases, “and he thanked his lucky stars because he just loved that job.” At Genentech, Bock became interested in the business side of science. He also worked on the team at Genentech that received the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize for demonstrating the world’s first recombinant DNA vaccine.

From there, he attended business school at UCLA, where he graduated in 1985. At age 28, Bock founded his first company—Athena Neurosciences—and later took it public. Elan acquired the company in 1996 for $625 million.

“He used to say that God had his hand on his shoulder when he didn’t get into medical school,” Diane Bock said.

Larry and Diane Bock last year. (Photo courtesy Quincy Bock)

Larry and Diane Bock last year.

Larry and Diane Bock had two girls, Quincy and Tasha. Quincy was married to John Stokes in the family’s back yard last October. In their planning for the wedding, Quincy wrote in an e-mail to me that her dad had numerous “excellent ideas” that added to the celebration.

“Most notable I think were the spectacular lights he installed all around the backyard and around the trees,” she wrote. “Our wedding was in no way negatively affected by my dad’s cancer. If anything, it probably made us appreciate the sweetness of all being together even more.”

The family is planning a memorial service for Larry Bock at their home on July 23rd.