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Venture philanthropy: Medical research meets Dragons' Den

Dr. Crystal Chan explains her research to Jeff Rosenthal, Laurel Linetsky-Fleisher and Karen Cohen.

Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail/matthew sherwood The Globe and Mail

What if writing a cheque to charity entitled you to have a say in how the funds were spent?

One of the country's most prestigious research institutes has set out to answer that question through a novel program where scientists compete to sell their ideas to a group of donors who know next to nothing about medical research.

It's garnered comparisons to the reality television show Dragons' Den, but three years after its inception, the Venture Sinai program at Mount Sinai Hospital's Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute is proving to be a successful gamble that is not only bringing in hundreds of thousands of new research dollars, but is also bridging the perennial divide between the work scientists are doing and the public it is meant to benefit.

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"The donors have become … more interested in terms of what their funding is going to do," said Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld institute. "In this era of cuts left, right and centre, I think we really do need to help people understand why we're doing what we're doing."

Venture Sinai is the brainchild of Jeff Rosenthal, a Mount Sinai board member who wanted to tap into an emerging new breed of would-be charitable donors.

"The days of just writing a cheque to a big organization and not really knowing where it's going or what it's doing … it's still applicable to a lot of people, but a lot of people are saying, 'That's not for me,'" Mr. Rosenthal said.

Mr. Rosenthal saw that a growing number of charitable groups were turning to venture philanthropy, a broad and burgeoning area that involves donors directly by letting them make decisions about how an organization is run or how money is spent.

Many of Mr. Rosenthal's friends had the means to contribute to the hospital, so he invited about 20 of them to a sit-down dinner three years ago, where they would hear pitches from three scientists from the Lunenfeld Institute who were looking for money to support their work.

Each of the dinner guests had to agree to commit $5,000 for five years and periodically visit the lab as a group to check in on the scientist's progress.

The scientists, Mr. Rosenthal said, were charged with giving "as dumb a presentation as they could" in order to make sense to a group that wouldn't know the difference between embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells.

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"It'll be like a beauty contest in an investment banking context. You pick the group – or in this case, the scientist – that you want to be the recipient," Mr. Rosenthal told his guests. "Everybody has their own reason for picking one scientist over another. It could be the type of research that's going on, it could be they like the colour of his tie."

So that first night, after everyone dined on steak and drank wine, the three scientists each gave a quick, dumbed-down presentation of their work and what they were hoping to achieve. The group voted by secret ballot and chose Roger Casper, a researcher investigating ways of using stem cells to treat cancer.

Since then, Venture Sinai has raised nearly $1.5-million in funding commitments for research at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute. Five additional groups of donors have been formed and are funding research projects, with two additional groups slated to meet for the first time in the new year. Mr. Rosenthal hopes the project continues to expand and wants to pursue corporate involvement.

Laurel Linetsky-Fleisher, a dentist, heard about Venture Sinai through a neighbour. She said that a major reason she got involved with the program was that it gave her the ability to choose how her philanthropic dollars would be spent. She and a group of female friends and colleagues decided to fund research into women's health.

Dr. Linetsky-Fleisher said the informal nature of the pitch sessions and opportunity they give her to ask questions makes the process of deciding where the money should go much easier. But in most cases, the group gravitates toward the scientist that can best explain the potential impact of his or her research.

"Whoever can make the project most accessible to us is normally the person that wins," she said.

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Individuals in the donor groups, which usually contain about 20 to 30 members, commit to giving a certain amount of money annually for a period of around three to five years. Members meet each year to hear pitches from scientists and receive updates from the individual chosen, including a visit to his or her lab. The next year, the group meets again to pick a new Venture Sinai recipient.

Anne-Claude Gingras, a senior investigator at the Lunenfeld institute who was also recently named one of the 100 most powerful women in Canada, is one of the scientists Venture Sinai has chosen to fund. Her work focuses on understanding mutations that may turn cells cancerous. This year, she pitched Venture Sinai with a proposal to embark on a novel, technologically complex experiment to identify how that occurs.

While Dr. Gingras is used to speaking to other scientists about her work, she said it was daunting to present her ideas to people who have little background in science, particularly since English isn't her first language.

"It brings another set of skills that may have been asleep for a while," she said.

But Dr. Gingras said she was surprised to find how receptive the group was to her ideas and how much fun everyone had getting to know each other over dinner.

"This is not something that you get to do very often as scientists, explain what you're working on to people that are actually interested in hearing about it," she said.

The money raised by Venture Sinai is a drop in the bucket compared to all of the competitive research funding the Lunenfeld Institute receives each year.

That doesn't matter, Dr. Woodgett said, because the purpose is to work with outside donors to raise the profile of the institution and the work going on within it.

Crystal Chan, a resident physician in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai who was named as a Venture Sinai fellow by Dr. Linetsky-Fleisher's group last summer, said going through the competitive process is something that will help her throughout her career.

"Competition is very pervasive. If we're not competing for charitable donations, we're competing for grants, we're competing for lab space, we're competing to be hired by an institution," Dr. Chan said. "And I think it's is good because what it does is it stimulates you to always challenge yourself to be better than you were before."

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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