“When I started, there were no black entrepreneurs, no women,” Walter Larkins says. “Someone helped me, and it’s my obligation to help others; particularly those who look like me. Women, people of color can’t get people to tell them the rules of the game. That’s where I come in.”
Larkins started in business some 35 years ago as a salesperson for Johnson & Johnson’s medical devices Startup after serving in the Army, becoming a Captain before exiting. Connections with innovative surgeons launched him on a career as an inventor and entrepreneur.
Today, Larkins helps others and the community of Long Beach as the Chair of the Economic Development Commission, a board member at the Long Beach Accelerator and founder/board member of the nonprofit Equals Opportunity (E=O2) Foundation. He is the founder and CEO of Sapphire RCMS, a SaaS tech company helping health care providers manage their contractual relationships with insurance companies.
He’s also a friend of Sunstone Management, Inc., and an early booster of the Launch Beach: 100 Startups campaign.
Larkins’s journey is a blueprint for how to be a successful Founder. To get started, he was at the right place at the right time and came up with a solution to a problem no one else had thought about. Here’s the story.
In The Beginning
“I actually wanted to be a doctor when I was a kid,” he says. “When I hired on at Johnson & Johnson, I was on the medical device side… I got to be friends with a surgeon who came up with a way to remove a gallbladder without making a big incision.”
Larkins began working with the surgeon to turn the idea into a real procedure, helping with refinements and setting up tests. It ultimately became viable, and was the foundation for creating Ethicon Endo-Surgery Inc., a J&J startup company. Larkins became director of professional education, and the company’s revenue grew from $5 million to $250 million in three years.
“At the same time, I was working on a way to do heart surgery with the same approach,” he says. “I came up with a minimally invasive approach I thought would work. So, I took it to the marketing executives. He told me, essentially, ‘We don’t invest in ideas. We invest in markets.’
“With that, I basically quit (Johnson & Johnson).”
An Entrepreneurial Path
Larkins formed his own company, Endosurgical Development Corp., to develop and market his invention. “I wanted to innovate, to create. I wanted to change people’s lives with my invention.”
But development takes money. Larkins went looking for investors.
“The VC’s said no,” Larkins recalls. “Then they gave me a list of what I didn’t have. It was basically a checklist of what I needed to do.”
That checklist required perseverance. Larkins spent the next two and a half years working on everything from applying for patents to polishing his pitch for venture capital. He still has the exact count of the No’s he received from venture capital firms – 54.
“Then the patent was issued,” he smiles. “I went through the roof. Suddenly the VCs started to become very interested.”
Larkins’s old employer became interested too. Endosurgical Development Corp. was eventually acquired by a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary.
Larkins then created an email encryption system before going back to the health field. This time, he took on the business side, with a software solution to help hospitals and other healthcare providers get payment from insurance companies in a timely manner. That’s the core of his current business, Sapphire RCMS.
In between, he also started CDR Financial Services, LLC, and Envision Associates.
His entrepreneurship has allowed Larkins to help others through his hiring practices. Military veterans go to the front of the line, some work is done overseas, and he has demonstrated ways automation allows people to work on more important things.
And he was part of the crew that started and shaped the Long Beach Accelerator, a training ground for startup entrepreneurs.
“It was exciting to be a part of another startup,” Larkins says. “That’s what it was. There was a steep learning curve. When we brought on Andrea (White-Kjoss, the LBA managing director), she put the wheels on the Ferrari.”
Over the last few years, Larkins served as a mentor for a number of startup founders both in and out of LBA. He was an early proponent of the accelerator’s emphasis on entrepreneurs who are women and people of color.
“No one teaches networking,” Larkins says. “People of color are taught to believe that if you work hard, you get what you deserve. Actually, you get what you ask for and networking is a big part creating opportunities to make the ask. … The attitude of asking for help is foreign to them. But no one pulls themselves up by their bootstraps. Someone has to give the boots and pull the straps.”
Through the Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Cal State Long Beach, Larkins offers advice to students considering an entrepreneurial life. You can hear it here: Spotlight on the IIE: Walter Larkins (part 2) – YouTube.
Long Beach’s Future
As the chair of the Economic Development Commission for Long Beach, Larkins is driving the development of the city’s Economic Blueprint 2.0.
“Every city is dealing with changes after COVID,” he says. “The impact of AI, how to repurpose buildings, the digital divide and virtual work, etc. At the same time, other cities are trying to do the same thing. I think we can create something here where everyone has a chance to succeed.”
“(Mayor) Rex (Richardson) built his campaign around inclusion, and I’m excited, more than excited, to help with that. There is hope that all people will get what they need to succeed.”
He says that he believes in and is participating in the Launch Beach: 100 Startups campaign – Sunstone Management, Inc., is the capital partner in that initiative. He worked with Sunstone CEO John Keisler when Keisler was the city’s Economic Development director and after he moved to Sunstone, and said he is looking forward to continuing that partnership.
“He’s the right guy in the right place,” Larkins says. “He has a vision. There’s a synergy of hope now, and I look forward to being a part of that.”
About Sunstone Management
Sunstone Management is a diversified private capital management firm with headquarters in Southern California that provides a range of early-stage venture capital, real estate, and fixed income funds to qualified and accredited investors. The firm delivers new and exciting options for economic growth through innovative public-private partnerships, making use of its unique experience across government, education, and private sectors. Identified by Financial Times as one of America’s Fastest Growing Companies three years in a row. In the second quarter of 2023, PitchBook ranked Sunstone the seventh most active early-stage venture capital firm in the country, and 18th overall.
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