AWARD SPOTLIGHT: Laura Lenz, Partner, OMERS Ventures winner of the 2020 Ted Anderson Community Leadership Award
Congratulations to Laura Lenz for winning the 2020 Ted Anderson Community Leadership Award. The 2020 CVCA Awards, sponsored by HarbourVest Partners Canada, will be announced each day June 8 – June 12, 2020 on social media beginning at 11am ET.
When most people think of a stroke patient, they think of someone older, potentially with health issues. Venture capitalist Laura Lenz was in this camp until just over a decade ago when her son Nolen was diagnosed with pediatric stroke shortly before his first birthday.
Lenz immediately started researching the shocking diagnosis, for which she says doctors provided no prognosis, including whether Nolen would be able to walk, talk or read later in life.
In her initial search for answers, Lenz came up dry. It left her frustrated.
“I thought, ‘How can I have a child with a diagnosis of pediatric stroke and there be no research or resources about it?’” she recalls.
Lenz also couldn’t find support groups for parents whose children had the same diagnosis.
“I thought, ‘how is it possible that when we apply for a library card and walk out with a package of information, but when we get a diagnosis for pediatric stroke we’re given nothing?’”
As she dug deeper, Lenz came across Dr. Gabrielle deVeber, a world-renowned doctor who had created a database for pediatric stroke patients at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto. Dr. deVeber’s work appeared to be virtually unknown outside the hospital at this time, which Lenz also found astonishing as she continued to process her son’s diagnosis.
This lack of attention and resources around pediatric stroke led Lenz to create the Canadian Pediatric Stroke Support Association (CPSSA) in 2011. Its mission is to provide support, education and resources for children with stroke and their families. The CPSSA also facilitates collaboration between families and the medical community.
Through the CPSSA, Lenz has built a community of more than 500 families who are caring for children who have had a stroke, while also forging a successful career as a VC. She built a website and a community, including a private Facebook group and quarterly newsletters for those affected.
“It was to bring families together to share their experience but also celebrate the milestones and achievements of what their children can do, despite the odds,” Lenz says.
The CPSSA has not only raised awareness around pediatric stroke but, under Lenz’s leadership, it raised $2.3M for a stroke imaging lab for children at SickKids, known as the Heart and Stroke Foundation & Nolen Hicks Stroke Imaging Lab for Children (SILC), to enhance the understanding of pediatric stroke causes and prognosis.
Her association has also developed a fundraising initiative for much-needed therapy bursaries for stroke children, which had led to two children receiving therapy services in a twelve-week block. The bursaries help to fund rehabilitation and medical equipment as well as the costs of travelling to and from appointments for families out of town.
She also lobbied the Heart & Stroke Foundation to include pediatric stroke in its advocacy and awareness programs, which led to the foundation making its first financial commitment to pediatric stroke research in 2013. Advocacy by the CPSSA also directly resulted in pediatric stroke being included for the first time in 2016 in Heart & Stroke’s Best Practices for Stroke Rehabilitation Guide that is distributed nationally to doctors and care facilities.
And, thanks to Lenz’s tireless lobbying. May 6 is officially recognized as Pediatric Stroke Awareness Day in Canada.
This incredible work has led to Lenz, a partner at OMERS Ventures, winning the CVCA’s 2019 Ted Anderson Community Award for involvement in multiple non-profits. The award recognizes the commitment of time and effort to an organization or cause over several years.
Dr. deVeber, who was Nolen’s pediatric neurologist, describes Lenz as “a lovely person” who’s both intelligent and “quietly powerful,” as demonstrated by her significant success through the CPSSA to date.
“She has a soft voice, but when she speaks, people listen. What she says matters,” says Dr. deVeber, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto and senior scientist in the Child Health Evaluation Sciences Program and a pediatric neurologist at SickKids.
She says Lenz’s passion and determination helped to focus healthcare policymakers and research funders focus on pediatric stroke as an important medical issue.
“It’s one thing for a scientist or a doctor to ask for money to help their patient population or research lab, but it’s quite another when it’s the parent of a child. That hits at an emotion and relevancy level that’s much more powerful,” Dr. deVeber says. “This myth that children don’t have strokes has to be overcome.”
Lenz, a mother of three children including Nolen, has spent the past decade channeling her energy into ensuring no other parent would ever feel as alone as she and her husband did on the day of their son’s diagnosis.
As for Nolen, Lenz says he’s a happy, thriving 10-year-old who loves and excels at math, sings in a choir and loves basketball, in particular the Toronto Raptors.
Still, his diagnosis continues to bring challenges and requires daily therapy to build his strength and musculoskeletal development.
“Everyone wants to hear that he’s fine now, but he’s not,” Lenz says.
Nolen has muscle weakness on his right side, from his eyes to toes, and wears an orthotic brace on his right leg and splint on his right arm. Lenz says he’s the first child in the world to wear a myoelectric prosthetic on his arm — and maybe the only one with a Raptors logo!
“He’s extremely proud of it,” Lenz says with a laugh.
Lenz says she’s honoured to receive the CVCA award, having worked with Ted Anderson in the past as a fellow member of the board of Waterloo-based company RapidMind (acquired by Intel in 2009).
“I had a great regard for Ted Anderson,” Lenz says. “He always approached problems in a thoughtful way.” She also hopes the award will help raise even more awareness for pediatric stroke.
As for her career, Lenz believes her philanthropic work has helped her become a better VC.
“It has helped me have more compassion for the start-up community,” she says, including the huge obstacles entrepreneurs often face, especially when told the prognosis for their business idea might not be good.
“It makes me think, ‘don’t ever listen to what other people tell you,’” Lenz says. “You need to prove it for yourself to see if you can achieve it.”