Larry Bock is probably the most successful venture capitalist you’ve never heard of. Eleven of the 16 companies he’s seeded have gone public and today have a combined market cap of $14.14 billion. Another two have been acquired by major corporate players like Corning Inc. for a combined $1.05 billion.
So why haven’t you heard of him? For one, he’s soft spoken, not a showboat. For another, he’s made his fortune in life sciences, a sector that until 2000 had fallen out of favor among most private and public investors. With life sciences continuing to gain more attention, it’s almost a certainty that Bock will become a celebrity.
He and his firm, CW Group of La Jolla, Calif., already invest alongside powerhouse firms like ARCH Venture Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Venrock Associates. Bock and the CW Group’s three other general partners also manage money for major pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly & Co., Hoffman LaRoche and Merck & Co., HMOs (Aetna) and major institutions and pension funds (IBM, MetLife, MIT, TIAA-CREF).
CW Group itself is capitalized at $250 million and manages a $125 million seed- and early stage fund, a vehicle that puts between $500,000 and $5 million to work in each portfolio company.
Bock, 42, has a trademark approach to nearly all of his investments. First, he identifies an area of interest, talks to everyone in the field, identifies its key innovators, locks them up and cuts an exclusive deal. Next, he raises enough financing to secure a management team and patent or license the core technology. Finally, he launches the company as its CEO then finds a replacement a year later.
If you’ve picked the right people, Bock says, the kinks will work themselves out. He’s taken the CEO role at eight of the 11 companies he started and took public.
His track record is rather remarkable considering that he learned on the job. After doing research at Genentech in infectious diseases and getting an MBA from UCLA, he went straight to work for a venture firm in 1985 – Fairfield Venture Partners. He helped found Avalon Ventures in 1988 then moved to CW Group in 1997.
Most of Bock’s hits came at Avalon. During his nine years at the firm he was instrumental in the founding of such companies as Ariad Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ARIA), which makes drugs based on the genetic and cellular components of disease; Neurocrine Biosciences (NASDAQ: NBIX), a maker of drugs for diseases and disorders of the central nervous system and immune system; and Pharmacopeia (NASDAQ: PCOP), a developer of chemical libraries for drug discovery.
Biotech has been very good to Bock, but he grew bored with its fixation on omics’- genomics, proteomics, functional physiomics. He was hungry for something new when he came across an issue of Science magazine in January 2001. Half of the issue was devoted to nanotechnology. He was excited again.
And so began his trademark journey. He started out by speaking to hundreds of people about nanotech. When he spoke to Dr. Charles Lieber, a Harvard chemist who developed a process for creating an ordered system of Silicon Nanowires using existing Silicon Technologies, it was kismet. He convinced Lieber to cofound Nanosys with him in mid-2001 and licensed a portfolio of Lieber’s work from Harvard.
With Bock’s track record and a strong founding team raising money was a snap. When Nanosys closed a $1.7 million seed round last October, the hardest part was figuring out how to split the pie four ways between ARCH, CW Group, Polaris Venture Partners and Venrock. Bob Metcalfe, father of Ethernet and a venture partner at Polaris, bought a sliver for himself and joined the board.
Nanosys, based in Cambridge, Mass., is working on nanotech-enabled systems with applications in the fields of chemical sensing, electronic memory and logic, and optoelectronics. The company is based on a biotech business model that isn’t built around or limited by a single product, Bock says. It’s a company built around a core technology platform – making it easier to finance, build products and adapt to the market’s needs.
Those in the know expect big things from Nanosys and Bock. “He’s the guru,” says Peter Hebert, a managing partner at Lux Capital in New York and a senior associate at the Foresight Institute for Nanotechnology in Palo Alto, Calif. “[With Nanosys, he] has taken a model he seems to have perfected: an early-stage company with a lot of IP and talented individuals, backing it and turning it into a billion-dollar company.” (No, Lux isn’t an investor in Nanosys.)
Unfortunately for those who like to play follow the leader, Bock is always one step ahead. By the time the followers try to duplicate what Nanosys is doing, he will have already moved on to something else. With his laser-like focus on the present, even he can’t say what his next venture will be.
General Partner, CW Group
Investment focus: Life sciences and health-care technology.
Biggest hits: Caliper Technologies (NASDAQ: ALP), Illumina Technologies (NASDAQ: ILMN), Neurocrine Biosciences (NASDAQ: NBIX), Pharmacopeia (NASDAQ: PCOP), Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX)
Board seats: FastTrack Systems Inc.
Years as a VC: 17
Did you know? If Bock doesn’t recognize your face, he’ll recognize your voice. He’s legally blind.