Q&A

Fresh off a $1.4B exit, this Houston innovator is focused on funding medical device tech

Larry Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about his startup's recent exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, his investment activity, and more. Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson

Earlier this year, Houston-based serial entrepreneur Larry Lawson celebrated the exit of his medical device company, Preventice Solutions, which he sold to Boston ScientificBoston Scientific in a $1.4 billion deal.

Nowadays, Lawson is laser focused on investing in the Houston innovation ecosystem, particularly in medical device, as well as working on Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization in the Texas Medical Center he co-founded with Kevin Coker.

Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about the exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, and his investment activity. He also shares how he sees the impact of COVID-19 and where Houston's burgeoning innovation ecosystem is headed.

InnovationMap: Earlier this year you saw an exit for your company Preventice Solutions, a company focused on the development of mobile health solutions and remote monitoring, which was sold to Boston Scientific in a $1.4 billion deal. What did this deal mean to both you and the company?

Larry Lawson: It validated what I started back in 2004. I had an idea, And I moved forward on my idea — in the beginning completely financed that idea myself. I tried to raise funds, and it was very difficult here in Houston back in 2004 to do that. I put my money, you might say, where my mouth was and I started the company and funded it and built it to a point to where we attracted some venture capital from one of the world's largest VC groups out of California called Sequoia Capital. That allowed me to really increase our exposure and our footprint nationally. And it just grew and grew and eventually Boston scientific got interested in the company, along with Merck, a pharmaceutical company, and they bought smaller pieces of the company.

Then at the end of the year of 2020, Boston Scientific made a play to acquire the company completely. Frankly, it have been better. I would have never dreamt that my original company would be worth that much and sell for that much. So it was very nice for not only me, but for many other people that were employed by Preventice, because as a founder of the company, I knew how important it was to share equity with the people that really make the company run and make it run well.

IM: I noticed that you’re on the board of several Houston health tech startups — most of which I’ve covered on InnovationMap. What do you look for in a company before joining the board and what role do you play for the companies’ growth?

LL: First of all, I look at the people who are in the company — from top level executive level all the way down, even including the existing board members of the company. I only invest in medical device companies. That's what I know, and that's why I've spent over 50 years in, and I feel like I know it very well. I do not venture far off of that line or that path at all.

I look for a strong operating group. I look for strong leadership — and if I can bring even stronger leadership and have them get from point A to point B, I like to get involved. Given my medical as the chairman of the company.

IM: You started your investment firm in 2018 — what inspired you to create LAWALA Capital and what do you look for in potential portfolio companies?

LL: I really limit my investments to the medical device segment of health care. LAWALA is just me — it's the first two letters of all three of my names: Larry Wayne Lawson. How I got into investing and starting companies is I see opportunity, and I see voids in the industry.

IM: Speaking of, you founded Proxima Clinical Research in 2017, which has a very hands-on approach to accelerating health tech innovation. Why did you decide to start that up?

LL: I saw a void in the clinical research industry, specifically at the medical center here, the largest medical center on the face of the earth. And it was doing all of this attracting all of these companies, all of these health science companies into Houston, and they were building and budding their companies, but there was no centralized clinical research company to be there for them.

I thought, "my gosh, somebody ought to do this." Well, I'm a doer. So, I went to the powers to be at the medical center and got their approval to be the founder of a company, called Proxima Clinical Research, and the key is putting it right there in the heart of the largest medical center in the world.

It's been really, really good for these companies who are coming into Houston to take advantage of the life science growth that's taking place here in Houston.

IM: How did COVID-19 affect the work that you do?

LL: COVID really did not affect our business that greatly. It affected the investments that I was doing. I pulled back and cut my, expenses and that, because I just needed to see, you know, how the COVID thing would shake out. I'm watching my investments a lot closer today, and think that it's affected the startup companies, more because to be a startup company, you have to go out and find investors to invest in your company. And I think that process has been slowed, I won't say considerably, but I think it's been slowed quite a bit over the past year and a half.

It just so happens that in the industry that I've been in, which is patient monitoring — cardiac arrhythmia monitoring — COVID has heightened patient monitoring more than anything else. What we learned from COVID is that we've got to be more in tune ourselves than ever before in monitoring all aspects of ourselves. What has come out of this COVID pandemic is telemedicine, which has struggled for years, now all of a sudden telemedicine is on the tip of everyone's tongue.

And I think that's one reason why you see the big companies — the multinational, multi-billion dollar companies — getting more in patient monitoring.

IM: Houston is home to the largest medical center in the world — but it’s often times not listed as a top city for medical innovation. Is that changing? And if so, how?

LL: When the medical center purchased the old Nabisco building and turned that into a technology center and a startup center, it changed the whole complexion of the device and medical startup community here in Houston. We've had a lot of former development here through MD Anderson in oncology, but we'd never had very much in devices. Now, we have companies coming from Europe and Asia coming to Houston to promote their technology and the devices that they have built.

The Rice Business Plan Competition is the largest in the United States. We fund more startup companies out of RBPC. I'm talking Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley — Houston is number one. And that has a lot to do with what has happened in the medical center over the past seven or eight years.

IM: What more do we need, now that we've come this far to really push us into that innovative healthcare city status?

LL: Well, I think what we need is for investors investing in healthcare and not oil and dirt. For years and years, the whole economy was driven by oil and gas and real estate. And I can remember starting my first company, the early eighties, I went to banks to borrow money to start my first company, and all I wanted was $200,000. Well, that was still a lot of money back then, but they would literally fall asleep on me because they couldn't understand and didn't understand exactly what I wanted to do. And so I wound up having to fund myself use my friends and family as investors, but that's changed quite a bit. The health science community here in Houston is now known all over the world. It's gonna just continue to grow and develop, and I hope to be a part of continue to be a part of it.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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