‘Venture philanthropy:’ The new investing hope to fund scientific breakthroughs

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‘Venture philanthropy:’ The new investing hope to fund scientific breakthroughs

Investors normally trade stocks, bonds or real estate, but entrepreneur Michael Hyatt is investing in science projects in hopes of backing an experiment that changes history.The chair of the Hyatt Family Foundation is teaming up with Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto to create a fusion between investing and charity — they call it venture philanthropy.“It hasn’t been done in our country. I thought, ‘why can’t I use my instincts and understanding and funding good things to do it in philanthropy?’” Hyatt said.“It’s not about Michael Hyatt making any money, it’s about the foundation placing investment into a researcher who wants to try and make a discovery that could change the world.”

Michael Hyatt is paving the way for venture philanthropy in Canada. He plans to fund research in hopes that it becomes profitable so he can take a cut and pour it into another medical discovery.

Peter J. Thompson /

National Post

The program is simple. Hyatt finds research he thinks has the potential to be a commercial success. If the study flounders, he moves on, but if it emerges as a champion, he takes a cut of the profits and pours the money into a different study.“They have to scrimp and scrounge for money all the time,” he said. “This is early, remote-chance science — who funds these researchers with these amazing hunches?”This is a huge leap forward and the step we neededDr. Ronald Cohn, SickKids president and CEOThe prototype experiment is one that could see a breakthrough in the fight against genetic disease.The research, led by The Hospital for Sick Children president and CEO Dr. Ronald Cohn, focuses on congenital muscular dystrophy type 1A, one of a slew of genetic disorders that weaken the body’s muscles. SickKids is a health-care, teaching and research centre affiliated with the University of Toronto that is dedicated exclusively to children.Dr. Cohn’s research was the first to reverse the disorders in mice by changing how genes are expressed without having to break genetic sequences. Soon, they will be attempting the same in humans and hope it could solve other genetic disorders.“This is a huge leap forward and the step we needed if we want to get serious about using CRISPR as a therapeutic option for patients,” Cohn wrote in an earlier release.

Dr. Ronald Cohn, lead investigator in a study at SickKids using a new gene editing technology called CRISPR that he hopes might one day be used to make custom treatments for rare inherited diseases.

Tyler Anderson / National Post

Mike Salter, the hospital’s chief of research, said Cohn’s method is unheard of.“It’s a new way of using the CRISPR (a gene-editing tool) that people haven’t shown to work before and haven’t thought about using,” he said.“The novelty in what Dr. Cohn’s doing is around changing the expression of other genes to have therapeutic benefit.”Hyatt is investing roughly $100,000 into the project for three years as a donor advised fund and says the hospital will match his investment.We’re seeing that incredibly good science in Canada has strained resources to fund itKevin Goldthorp, SickKids Foundation president and chief development officerIn this case, Hyatt’s foundation will get 10 per cent of any profit that comes from the research if it becomes viable, but each project will have different terms. Hyatt said he’s particularly interested in funding very focused research and hopes to back something on blindness or deafness.“We can make the most profound changes … that’s the beauty of this,” he said.Kevin Goldthorp, president and chief development officer at the SickKids Foundation, says if Cohn’s research becomes a venture philanthropy success story, it could trigger a windfall researchers around the country are desperate to have.“We’re seeing that incredibly good science in Canada has strained resources to fund it,” Goldthorp said.“The very best granting agencies say ‘this is great science but we have no money.’” • Email: bhristova@postmedia.com | Twitter: bobbyhristova
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