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.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.