Business financier Michael Milken, a longtime anti-cancer donor, detected inefficient patterns in medical research similar to those he had worked against during his career in high finance. He discovered it tended to be established “safe” researchers who garnered grants even though many of these individuals were well beyond their years of peak creativity. Meanwhile, brilliant young unknowns with bold if risky ideas had great difficulty getting funding to test their theories. Milken also observed that grant paperwork absorbed large amounts of time for scientists who would be much better employed in their lab than at a desk filling out forms. He noticed that during basic research too little attention was paid to whether a new regimen had the potential to lead to better diagnostics or treatment. In all these areas, private donors were able to be much nimbler than federal grant agencies, and he made getting around such obstacles one priority of the Prostate Cancer Foundation he founded in 1993.
The PCF quickly became a leader on prostate cancer, having raised $500 million for medical research in less than two decades, which it used to fund more than 1,600 projects in 15 countries. One of PCF’s first grants was to Judah Folkman, whose work on starving the blood supply to tumors had effects on many branches of cancer research. Early funding from the foundation also led to new treatments and drugs—including Zometa (for treating prostate cancer and other solid tumors), Provenge (an immunotherapy), and Jevtana (an enhanced chemotherapy). PCF-funded researchers made big strides in identifying various types of prostate cancer and creating treatments, and are now driving dozens of new drugs and therapies through clinical testing. Since the founding of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the number of prostate deaths has fallen from 40,000 per year to below 30,000, despite a growing and aging population.
Michael Milken’s medical giving now exceeds a billion dollars. The philanthropy model he pioneered, grafting business principles onto donating, is popularly called venture philanthropy. Its success in speeding the pace of innovation in research and treatment—and also in expanding public awareness of prostate cancer—has fed similar efforts from other funders and nonprofits—like the Susan Komen efforts against breast cancer, the Livestrong Foundation (testicular cancer), the Michael J. Fox Foundation (Parkinson’s), and the Melanoma Alliance.
- Story in Philanthropy magazine, philanthropyroundtable.org/site/print/the_accelerator
- Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News article on venture philanthropy, genengnews.com/keywordsandtools/print/1/12978